Nuclear Test Risks Blowing Lid Off U.K.’s Plan to Keep Lights on

Builders of the U.K.’s first nuclear plant in two decades are about to take a vital component and break it.

The 110-ton spherical steel lid was destined to sit atop a reactor at the Hinkley Point site in Somerset. Instead it will be sacrificed to test the strength of a part already welded in place at similar atomic projects in France and China.

The tests are essential after regulators found potential weaknesses in the steel used to contain radiation. The results may derail countries’ nuclear programs that are relying on the EPR reactors. They also threaten a generation of atomic plants that developer Areva SA has billed as the world’s safest.

“We are the nuclear police,” Pierre-Franck Chevet, head of the French safety regulator that raised the alarm, said in an interview. “I like the police, but not everyone does.”

In the U.K., two of Areva’s reactors, costing an estimated 24.5 billion pounds ($39 billion), are key to government plans to meet future gaps in baseload power and keep the lights on. Hinkley Point is scheduled to start up in 2023 and operate for 60 years, delivering 7 percent of U.K. electricity generation.

As the country considers final approval of the proposals, the safety setbacks will only add to concerns as two of the EPR reactors being built so far in France and Finland are already years behind schedule and billions of euros over budget.

The examination of “anomalies” found in steel in the EPR vessel is also a test of the credibility of a French nuclear program led by Electricite de France SA that seeks to export technology to the U.K., China and possibly the Middle East.

Issues Found

The issues were found in the 5-meter (16-foot) head and base of the container for the reactor core built at Areva’s Creusot Forge in eastern France. If further tests prove they aren’t strong enough, the equipment can’t be used, Chevet, president of the Autorite de Surete Nucleaire, said Tuesday.

Removing those parts from the development sites where they’re already welded into place in Normandy, France, and Taishan, China, would at the least add to costs and delays.

“If testing results in component replacement, this would be very expensive and time consuming, in our view, especially if it implies similar actions for other projects,” Standard & Poor’s said in a credit note on Areva and EDF on Thursday.

Areva is confident of demonstrating the safety of the vessel and its components, while lessons from the Normandy development will be used in manufacturing for the Hinkley Point reactor, a spokesman said Thursday. EDF Chief Executive Officer Jean-Bernard Levy told shareholders last month the utility would demonstrate the French plant’s EPR components are safe.

Pushed Back

Construction of the Flamanville EPR in Normandy began in December 2007, with the date for completion repeatedly pushed back from an initial goal of 2012. The most recent completion date is 2017, while the cost has more than doubled to 8.5 billion euros ($9.5 billion) from 3.3 billion originally.

Both Areva and EDF say their program’s latest difficulties follow changes in safety rules introduced in 2005 that weren’t immediately set out in detail. The regulator says problems were found because of extra testing and it has asked Areva to review the manufacturing methods it used over the past decade.

“The new rules meant more verification tests had to be carried out and these allowed the anomalies to come to light,” said Chevet, who took the helm at the watchdog in 2012. “It’s not the level of standards that changed, but rather because there were more tests, we found things. If we had found the same anomaly back then, we would have reacted in the same way.”

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