Further doubt has been cast over the future of three nuclear reactors under development in the UK, after the discovery of a a potentially catastrophic mistake in the construction of an identical power plant in France.
French regulators have been informed of “manufacturing anomalies” in components “particularly important for safety” at the Flamanville 3 power plant, in Normandy – a prototype of France’s new generation of European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), touted as a safer and more efficient nuclear technology.
“It is a serious fault, even a very serious fault, because it involves a crucial part of the nuclear reactor,” said Pierre-Franck Chevet, head of France’s nuclear safety inspectorate.
The anomalies have prompted a second investigation into the quality of the steel used to make a 50ft-high safety casing, or “pressure vessel”, which encloses the groundbreaking new reactor at Flamanville.
In a joint statement, French multinationls Areva and EDF said new tests were under way on the “reactor vessel head and bottom”.
The companies said this followed initial tests which had shown “greater than average carbon content” – something French regulators said caused “lower than expected mechanical toughness” in the steel.
“Teams are working to perform the additional tests as soon as possible, following approval by the French Nuclear Safety Authority on the test conditions, and to provide the safety authority with all the necessary information to demonstrate the safety and quality of the corresponding equipment,” the statement said.
Whatever the outcome, it’s not good news for UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s “keep the lights on” energy strategy, a large part of which has been the development of two EPR nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset and another, later, in Suffolk.
The Independent reports that if the steel does prove to be defective, the completion of the prototype UK plant – already behind schedule and nearly three times over budget – could be delayed for several years more.
One of the main concerns, reports the BBC, is that questions about safety will spook the Chinese state investors who were expected to cover part of the cost of the £14bn Hinkley project, intended to supply 6 per cent of Britain’s energy needs for 60 years.
“What foreign client would want to buy this reactor when France itself is not capable of completing its construction?” asked Greenpeace France’s Yannick Rousselet, in a statement describing the latest problems to beset the Normandy prototype as “the coup de grâce for the EPR idea.”
Sources in the French nuclear industry have told the newspaper Le Parisien that dismantling the faulty pressure vessel and ordering and manufacturing a new one could take several years.
“If the weakness of the steel is proved, I don’t hold out much hope for the survival of the EPR project,” a former senior nuclear safety official told the paper.
In the UK, it has taken the government months to negotiate a contract for EDF to supply electricity at a guaranteed price for 35 years.
The final decision on the British project is expected in the coming months but is also delayed by the current lack of a fully functioning government – something which could be exacerbated if talks on forming a government drag on after the election.