EDF ordered to halt work on reactor

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

France’s nuclear safety watchdog has ordered EDF to halt work temporarily at its flagship new generation nuclear power station after finding that the French electricity giant had failed to address deficiencies in quality controls.

The Nuclear Safety Authority, charged with inspecting France’s 59 reactors, said on Tuesday that it had detected anomalies in the reinforcement of concrete for the 1,600MW EPR reactor being built at Flamanville in northern France.

Thomas Houdré, the NSA’s chief inspector on the site, said the anomalies posed no threat to safety but “they illustrate a lack of rigour in the construction works, which is unacceptable”.

The NSA has ordered EDF to prepare an action plan to resolve the quality issues and address continuing weaknesses in its surveillance of the works and its suppliers. These include the civil engineering contractor, Bouygues, which is responsible for the reinforcement of the concrete.

The unexpected stoppage and the NSA’s sharp criticism of the French utility’s project management comes at a delicate time for EDF. The group is waiting for a decision on its bid for the UK government’s stake in British Energy, the country’s nuclear power operator.

However, the fact that EDF appeared to be the sole serious bidder has raised questions over the auction process, while there has also been criticism from the opposition Conservative party over the possibility that a French state-owned group could control Britain’s nuclear future.

“We should monitor this very carefully, learn from it, and ensure that Britain has the highest imaginable standards for any new build,” Alan Duncan, the opposition business secretary, said on Tuesday.

EDF insisted on Tuesday that it had spotted the problems identified by the NSA several days before the order to halt work, precisely because it had responded to earlier NSA demands to reinforce its surveillance systems.

The French group decided to suspend the pouring of concrete on a limited part of the site, but the nuclear safety authority extended the stoppage on Tuesday.

“Our priority is to build the EPR in full respect of the safety criteria,” EDF said.

Yet, Tuesday’s rap across the knuckles from the NSA is only the latest in a series of rebukes, in a project that is expected to cost more than €3bn ($4.7bn) and complete in 2012.

Greenpeace, the environmental campaigning group, said on Tuesday the authority’s criticism proved that France’s EPR technology – developed by Areva, the nuclear engineering group – “is fast becoming a byword for incompetence, massive delays, spiralling costs and dodgy engineering. We only have a limited time and budget to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change and we should stop pouring money down the nuclear black hole”.

However, the NSA has rejected Greenpeace’s allegations that the EPR technology is not safe. “This is a question of the way the work is organised,” an official said.

Posted in |