Electricite de France SA had a lot riding on its nuclear drill yesterday.
Members of its new rapid-action nuclear force created after the meltdown in Fukushima in Japan in 2011 gripped the nozzle of a hose, looking triumphant as it began spouting water from a canal near the utility’s Chinon atomic plant on the banks of the Loire River.
“Everything is destroyed around here; it’s night and no one can come and help,” Caroline Bernard, head of safety at EDF, said during the exercise witnessed by a group of reporters. “We have put ourselves in the extreme case of Fukushima.”
In the wake of the Japanese accident, EDF was given six years by nuclear regulator Autorite de Surete Nucleaire to complete about 10 billion euros ($13 billion) of measures to boost safety while France debates scaling back its reliance on atomic energy. EDF operates the 58 nuclear reactors in France, which depends on atomic energy for about three quarters of its power production, the highest proportion in the world.
The drill yesterday worked under the scenario that all of the plant’s power and cooling systems had failed, putting its four 900-megawatt reactors at risk of a meltdown similar to what happened in Fukushima.
There, an earthquake and tsunami knocked out defenses at Tokyo Electric Power Co’s reactors, sending radioactivity spewing into the air and sea, and leaving rescue workers scrambling to bring water by fire trucks and helicopters to cool overheating installations.
“No one can ever guarantee that a nuclear accident will never happen in France,” Andre-Claude Lacoste, then head of the watchdog, said at the time. He decided that safety must be made “more robust” at EDF’s nuclear operators, stopping short of immediately shutting any sites.
Bolstering safety has included investment in new equipment such as diesel generators, bunkered control rooms, and barriers against flooding.
As Chancellor Angela Merkel decided on Germany’s pullout from nuclear energy and Italy scrapped a planned revival, EDF Chief Executive Officer Henri Proglio said the “stakes are high for the group” to reassure the French population.
The rapid reaction force, which is costing the utility 150 million euros, is being designed so it can intervene within 24 hours simultaneously at as many as six reactors at any one EDF site, the utility said. The 50-strong team is expected to grow to about 300 by 2015 spread over four atomic plants.
During yesterday’s drill, the task for the nuclear force -- wearing safety gear and hardhats -- was to transport pumps, filters and generators necessary to bring water from a nearby canal to one of Chinon’s reactors as an alternative coolant.
Working under the assumption that all existing equipment at the plant was crippled, the team lowered a pump by rope into the canal, set up power supplies and hoses and got the water to the nuclear generator building in less than two hours.
Hose connections have been added to the outsides of French reactor buildings since Fukushima that allow water to be pumped straight inside, Bernard said.
At Fukushima, power outages knocked out all cooling systems and workers had to organize water transport by truck and helicopter, a long and tedious process that increased the risks of meltdowns, French safety authorities said at the time.
EDF’s action force is made up of volunteers among staff who’ll train about 20 weeks a year on the task, according to the utility. They sign a waiver stating they may have to work under “emergency radiological conditions” and get no extra pay.
“Our goal is to arrive on the scene before an accident to prevent a meltdown and radioactivity from escaping,” said Bernard Camporesi, 51, head of operations for the team at EDF’s Civaux plant.
Calling himself a “standard person with special training,” he rejects all comparisons with the workers at Chernobyl and Fukushima who risked their lives going into hostile atomic environments to prevent even worse disasters from happening.
“Fukushima struck a chord in all of us,” Camporesi said. “We asked ourselves how this could have happened, we tried to understand and do something about it.”
Before the accident, EDF didn’t have the equivalent of the rapid-action force in terms of people or equipment, he said.
A tour of their base camp revealed brand-new trucks for hauling heavy materials, lifts, all-terrain vehicles, air-conditioned tents with real beds and hot-water showers.
The team is trained to work autonomously for three days with the goal of relieving or replacing personnel on the site.
It hauled 48 tons of equipment to Chinon for the three-day drill.
“Fukushima shook up teams at our plants,” said Bernard, who was head of the utility’s Goldfech plant in southwestern France. “We just didn’t expect it from the Japanese.”