EDF Reactor Seen Facing ‘Difficulties’ by Nuclear Safety Chief

More safety faults could be uncovered in France’s flagship nuclear reactor being built by Electricite de France SA and Areva SA in Normandy, a regulator warned.

“There are difficulties” in the execution of the project, Pierre-Franck Chevet, head of the French nuclear safety regulator, told a parliamentary hearing in Paris on Thursday. “As we enter into the period of startup trials and the qualification phase, there could be more anomalies. We’ll have to deal with them.”

The atomic regulator was summoned to explain to lawmakers its finding of potential weaknesses in the steel used in the lid and bottom of the reactor’s core vessel. Having qualified the discovery as “serious or very serious,” Chevet ordered the companies to carry out additional tests on the components to prove they are safe, raising questions about construction costs and delays.

“There is no doubt” that the anomalies found in the steel of the vessel parts go against French regulations and international standards, Remy Catteau, head of pressurized equipment at the nuclear safety regulator, told the hearing. Some concentrations of carbon could create weaknesses in the alloy and have never been seen before in France’s existing nuclear fleet, he said.

Safety experts giving testimony Thursday stressed that reactor vessels have to resist decades of radioactivity, heat and pressure -- 60 years in the case of this model -- and can’t be changed once the generator has started. In the case of an accident, components also need to withstand thermal shocks if cold water is introduced to prevent a meltdown.

Avoiding Ruptures

“A rupture has to be avoided under all circumstances,” said Jacques Repussard, director of the Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, known as IRSN, the technical adviser to the regulator.

EDF takes responsibility for the faults and is overseeing the additional tests, Laurent Thieffry, head of the Flamanville reactor project, told the hearing. Areva will measure the strength of the metals in all areas, as well as the manufacturing process, said Bertrand de l’Epinois, head of safety at Areva.

Construction of the Flamanville reactor 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.

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