A deadly serious French farce

Flamanville reactor fiasco tops list of France’s giant nuclear con game

By Linda Pentz Gunter

At the Flamanville 3 reactor construction site, the falling French toast never lands with the jam side up. This isn’t a case of Murphy’s law, where anything that can go wrong will go wrong, eventually. It’s the worse version, called Sod’s law, in which everything always goes wrong and with the worst possible outcome. 

Of course, in any normal business environment, no one in their right mind would continue on with such a reckless venture as is the nuclear reactor project at Flamanville on France’s Normandy coast. Nor would anyone look at the litany of technical, ethical and financial disasters at Flamanville and immediately sign up for their own version.

But this is nuclear we are talking about, where no such sanity applies. While a corporation would walk away from a deal as disastrous as Flamanville, the French and UK governments would rather fleece their citizens’ wallets and risk the survival of their own populations as long as it keeps their nuclear power projects moving forward. So Flamanville is still not canceled. And its evil twin, at Hinkley C on the English coast, isn’t either.

Flamanville anti nuke rally 2

There have been frequent protests at Flamanville to stop construction

Flamanville was to be the French flagship for a bold new reactor design — the European Pressurized Reactor or EPR. The US flirted briefly with the idea, but every one of the seven planned US EPRs were canceled. (In order to improve its marketing opportunities in the US and hide its European roots —  we were into Freedom Fries then —  the American version of the EPR was rebranded the Evolutionary Power Reactor. But that didn’t save it.)

So now comes the latest and oh so not surprising news that there are some technical problems at the Flamanville 3 reactor with welds on piping. One hundred and fifty of them. And not just any old welds on any old piping. We are not talking plumbing problems here. The welds are on piping that connects the steam generator and the turbines that produce electricity. 

The welding problems were discovered in April. There are already signs that, upon inspection, at least 35% of these welds have defects. This week, EDF, the Flamanville operator, announced that inspections need to continue and therefore the proposed late 2018 startup date will now be pushed to summer 2019.

Stephane's EPR dinosaur

The EPR takes its first steps. (From Stéphane Lhomme)

This kind of news has ceased to shock somehow because, from day one, Flamanville has been the Abby Normal of new nuclear reactor designs (see Young Frankenstein for source reference.) It has been defective since the day concrete was first poured at the site in December 2007, when a 2012 completion date was trumpeted, and the cost was to be approximately $4 billion. As they say in New York, good luck with that one, pal.

Now, here we are in June 2018, with the startup date pushed to summer 2019 and the cost estimated to soar to at least $12 billion before one watt of electricity is produced.

Delays have just been announced, again, at the Finland EPR in Olkiluoto as well. 

Luckily for EDF and EPR manufacturer, Areva, the EPR in Taishan, China, just came on line, the first EPR to do so. The timing couldn’t have been better. The attention focused on the (apparent) Taishan triumph rather than the latest Flamanville failure, conveniently masked the fact that the two Taishan EPRs have pressure vessels that are likely defective as these were manufactured at the notorious Le Creusot forge. Owned by Areva, Le Creusot only just reopened after being rocked by the scandal of counterfeit parts and falsified quality control. (At least 17 US reactors also contain Le Cresuot parts.)

This same problem had been uncovered in 2014 at Flamanville, whose reactor pressure vessel was also forged at Le Creusot. Both the vessel lid and base are defective, a problem that EDF and Areva were alerted to as far back as 2004 and again in 2005. Still, to coin a phrase, they forged ahead.

By 2015, the French safety authority, ASN, was seriously considering ordering a replacement of the lid and/or the entire vessel. But by then both EDF and Areva were entering into financial freefall. Instead, ASN buckled to the companies’ fiscal worries and concern for the country’s nuclear exports, and agreed to let Flamanville start up with the defective components. The agency lamely suggested these should be inspected five years into operation. But EDF is already on record suggesting this likely won’t be necessary.

Stop EPR posterHere are a few other things that have gone wrong at Flamanville over the years and virtually from the get-go. In 2008, ASN halted the concrete foundation pour at the site after finding shortcomings in worksite supervision, quality control and oversight, lack of reinforcement in the concrete, and defects in the metallurgy and welding.

In 2011, a worker died on the building site, falling 18 meters off a footbridge hit by a worksite crane. In 2016, a year after the Le Creusot scandal delayed progress, ASN again called a halt at Flamanville due to unsatisfactory monitoring and technical inspections. In 2017, there was an explosion and fire inside the turbine hall, which was considered “not an accident.”

By the start of 2018, EDF had accumulated a debt of $71.5 billion, and AREVA was $11.7 billion in debt. By June 2018, Flamanville was seven years behind schedule and costs have now more than tripled.

As French Renaissance writer, François Rabelais, said more than four centuries ago, “Bring down the curtain, the farce is over.”

For more background see this article by Hans-Josef Fell and Eva Stegen

Headline photo shows the Flamanville 3 construction site in 2011.

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One Comment on “A deadly serious French farce

  1. Pingback: A deadly serious French farce — Beyond Nuclear International « Antinuclear

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