French Nuclear Watchdog Plans Fessenheim Decision in ‘Weeks’

France’s nuclear power watchdog will “within weeks” announce a decision on whether to allow the country’s oldest reactor to operate for another decade.

“It’s a recommendation that was formulated before the events in Japan,” Andre-Claude Lacoste, head of the Autorite de Surete Nucleaire, said today at a press conference. “This won’t prevent us from imposing new measures if there are lessons learned from Japan.”

The regulator has completed inspections at the 900-megawatt Unit 1 reactor at Fessenheim, located in northeastern France near the German border, and allowed Electricite de France SA to resume output pending the decision. The unfolding disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant and Germany’s decision to close its seven oldest reactors for three months have focused attention on whether the reactor, which came on-line in 1978, would be granted an extension.

Two Swiss cantons, or local regions, this week urged France to halt the plant because of it age and its location in a seismic area until its safety is verified. EDF operates the country’s 58 reactors, including 34 of the 900-megawatt models.

President Nicolas Sarkozy today reaffirmed that the country will carry out “stress tests” on its reactors and close any that fail, as part of a European Union-wide test of the bloc’s 143 reactors following the accident in Japan. Prime Minister Francois Fillon asked the watchdog to perform the checks by the end of the year and officials said today an attempt will be made to harmonize tests for all EU reactors.

Tricastin Suitable

The ASN last year gave approval for the first time to run a 30-year-old reactor for another decade after Unit 1 at Tricastin in southern France was found it “suitable.” The decision wasn’t extend to all 34 900-megawatt reactors, which will have to undergo the same inspection.

The ruling was the first step to “significantly extend” the life of France’s existing commercial reactors that generate almost 80 percent of the country’s power. They have an average age of about 24 years. Prolonging lifetimes is cheaper than building new reactors such as one EDF is developing in Flamanville, Normandy, for about 5 billion euros ($7 billion).

Eleven nuclear reactors will reach a 40-year operating life between 2015 and 2020, according to EDF’s annual report. EDF and the safety body are in talks on measures needed to extend reactors to beyond four decades, the ASN has said. Chief Executive Officer Henri Proglio has estimated these could cost about 600 million euros a reactor.

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