Fireball Risk Forces Total to Revamp Site Near Nuclear Plant

Total SA was ordered to modify an oil-storage site in the vicinity of a nuclear plant in northern France to avert the risk of an explosive fireball knocking out the reactor’s safety systems.

The move follows in the wake of the nuclear disaster at Fukushima in Japan two years ago, which prompted France’s atomic regulator Autorite de Surete Nucleaire, or ASN, to more closely review the country’s 58 sites.

Should crude stored in one of Total’s tanks catch fire, a phenomenon known as a “boilover” could occur, sending a ball of burning oil bursting into the air, IRSN, the technical adviser to ASN, said in a report on nuclear safety published on its website yesterday. The resulting fireball could lead to the malfunction of “important safety equipment” at the nuclear site, its owner Electricite de France SA has determined, according to the report.

ASN has ordered EDF, the biggest power producer in France, to carry out billions of euros of measures to bolster the defenses of reactors and other installations. France, which gets about 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power -- the most in the world -- has asked EDF to add power generators and cooling sources at plants and carry out work to strengthen the country’s oldest reactors at Fessenheim against earthquakes.

At the northern France site, EDF and Total “have been asked to take action to reduce the risk,” the IRSN said. The nuclear plant at Gravelines and the fuel storage site are located near Dunkirk on the English Channel.

Too Close

Concerns about the proximity of Gravelines to Total’s crude-storage site haven’t been published in previous reports by the IRSN, a spokesman said. The IRSN has begun publishing more details about its recommendations on safety, he said.

Total’s installation called Appontements Petroliers des Flandres has seven crude storage tanks and is located as close as 700 meters from EDF’s Gravelines plant, which has six 900-megawatt atomic reactors.

When development of the atomic generators began at the end of the 1970s, EDF installed a 20-metre hillock with ditches on each side between the sites to protect against the risk of heat reaching the reactors from crude storage tank fires or leakage, the report said.

The potential risk of fireballs from boilover was only studied by Total in 2007 when the safety of the industrial sites was revisited, according to the authority.

EDF studies have since showed that a boilover from a full tank of crude, which may occur 60 hours after the start of a fire, could knock out reactor safety systems including outside power sources, pumping and ventilation systems, IRSN said.

Different Fuel

In 2011, Total emptied the storage tanks at the site to the “minimum technically possible” level to limit the risk of boilovers and will this year modify the type of fuels stored at the site, IRSN said.

Crude will be replaced by diesel, heating fuel and other less viscous fuels that lessen the risk of the most “intense” kind of boilovers, the IRSN concluded.

A spokesman from Total couldn’t provide an immediate comment.

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