EDF Must Raise Nuclear Safety Nearer to Level of New Plants

Electricite de France SA must raise safety at nuclear plants built as long as 30 years ago closer to levels of new designs engineered to withstand plane crashes and core meltdowns, according to French regulators.

The Autorite de Surete Nucleaire will gauge the safety of EDF’s 58 reactors against the latest technology when deciding whether to allow the utility to extend the life of its plants, Pierre-Franck Chevet, the head of the watchdog, said today.

While it’s “technologically possible” to run plants beyond their 40-year lifetimes, safety needs to move “toward that of third-generation reactors,” Chevet said in Paris.

EDF owns more reactors than any other utility in the world, making France the country most reliant on atomic power. Chief Executive Officer Henri Proglio has said EDF seeks to prolong the lives of its reactors to as long as six decades. Thirty-year-old plants have already won approval to run for 40 years.

In Flamanville, Normandy, the company is building an advanced reactor model known as an EPR, which is designed to withstand airplane crashes and better contain core meltdowns.

Chevet, who has the power to shut down EDF reactors, cited the safety of spent-fuel cooling pools and the strength of reactor bases and cores as areas of focus for the regulator.

EPR safety criteria will play a role in granting extensions “because the alternative is to build a new reactor,” he said.

Life Extensions

The watchdog, known as the ASN, plans a preliminary opinion on life extensions in 2015 and a final ruling in 2018 or 2019, Chevet said. Each EDF plant will then still have to go through the in-depth safety investigation that French reactors are subject to every decade.

“We don’t see how the ASN could refuse to grant the extensions,” Dominique Miniere, deputy director of production and engineering at Paris-based EDF, said today at a press conference. “We have a deep conviction that our reactors can run for 50 or 60 years.”

The utility submitted proposals to the ASN on improving safety at cooling pools three weeks ago, according to Miniere. If the regulator declines to extend operations, EDF would have to replace reactors with other forms of power supply because there wouldn’t be enough time to renew the fleet, he said.

On top of the safety requirements, EDF is also navigating French President Francois Hollande’s pledge to trim nuclear output to half of total power production by about 2025, while boosting the country’s renewable-energy supplies. EDF’s nuclear reactors supply about 75 percent of French power generation.

Hollande, elected in 2012, has ordered the permanent halt of two 900-megawatt nuclear units at EDF’s Fessenheim plant in eastern France by the end of 2016. That year, EDF also plans to start the new 1,650-megawatt EPR at Flamanville, which will be the biggest atomic generator in France.

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