French utility EDF has once again pushed back the estimated start-up date and upped the cost estimate of the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) under construction at Flamanville, France. There was no attempt to sugar-coat the fiasco by the World Nuclear Association, which noted that the estimated cost has more than tripled − from €3.3 billion (US$3.7b) to €10.5 billion (US$11.8b) − and the estimated six-year construction timeline has nearly doubled to 11 years.1
Concerns were revealed earlier this year about the structural integrity of pressure vessels in EPRs under construction in France and China. WISE-Paris has released a briefing on the problems.2 Drawing on information from the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) and its technical support organisation, the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), WISE-Paris states:
"Available analysis released by the French nuclear safety authorities confirms the serious and exceptional nature of the defect found on the head and bottom of the reactor pressure vessel (RPV) of the EPR reactor at Flamanville, in France, and most probably those of Taishan 1 and 2 in China. All three units are under construction.
This defect consists in a "major positive segregation", which describes an area where the carbon concentration is found to be higher than the limit expected and requested under technical specifications in the steel that was used for fabrication. The excess in carbon reaches up to 50% higher levels than expected in the affected area, which covers more than one meter in diameter and spreads through more than half of the head thickness. This appears to be much higher in scope than any other known segregation on similar components within the French operating nuclear fleet.
The mechanical properties will be affected in the segregated area, which could therefore jeopardize the possibility to exclude with certainty the risk of RPV rupture in some operational conditions. This certainty is one of the fundamentals of the reactor's safety assessment.
The presence of the segregated zone results from the choice that Areva made regarding the forging process of the concerned components by its daughter company Creusot Forges. The analysis shows that another process, which has been used by Japan Steel Works (JSW) to forge similar components for the EPR reactor under construction in Finland, would most likely have allowed to avoid such segregations. In the case of the bottom, which is a little less thick than the head, it also appears that yet another process (directed solidification ingot), which is used by Creusot Forges for other pieces, could have been used to avoid the problem.
According to the analysis of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) and its technical support organisation, the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), Areva therefore chose, contrary to regulatory guidelines, a fabrication process which had not received technical qualification beforehand and which did not use the best available technology. ASN says that it warned Areva on various occasions against the industrial risk that it took when proceeding with fabrication despite those concerns. Moreover, according to the same analysis, Areva's technical assessment of the risk and characterization of a segregated zone forming in the pieces was wrong.
While there is no indication of any dissimulation at this stage, the reasons why the parts could be forged in 2006-2007, welded with other components of the RPV, and why this RPV could be received by the operator EDF, installed in the reactor building and welded with other components of the primary circuit in 2014, without any stop-point of any sort, remain to be understood. ...The programme of studies and tests that Areva proposed is expected to deliver its results in the first half of 2016, allowing for the Advisory Group to discuss them by mid-2016 at the earliest. ASN could therefore not make its final decision about the acceptability of the RPV before the second half of 2016, even if the study and testing results were conclusive."
If remedial action is required, it could be extremely expensive and time-consuming. The pressure vessel problems could kill the Flamanville project and destroy Areva's already bleak chances of securing further overseas orders for EPRs.
Pierre-Franck Chevet, head of ASN, said the two EPRs planned for Hinkley Point in the UK could be affected as pressure vessels for those reactors have already been manufactured using the same techniques.3
Delays with the Flamanville EPR − arising from the pressure vessel fiasco, or any of the other fiascos that have plagued the project, or any fiascos that have yet to emerge − could directly impact the planned EPRs at Hinkley Point. The European Commission's conditional support4 for the extraordinary subsidies on offer from the UK government to get the project moving are subject to a legal challenge launched by Austria and others. Moreover, the EC ruling was conditional, and one of the conditions is that if the Flamanville reactor is not operational by the end of 2020, the UK government's financial guarantees become invalid. The complexities of the arrangement were recently explained by Oliver Tickell in The Ecologist.5 The EC noted that its conditions were intended to ensure that shareholders and not the guarantor (British taxpayers) "retain the principal exposure to the viability of the EPR technology until such time as there is objective evidence for confidence through the success of precedent projects such as Flamanville 3 and Taishan 1."
The UK government is still trying to rescue the Hinkley Point project despite a growing chorus of criticism. British utilities pulled out of the project long ago. The capacity of French utilities EDF and Areva to fund the project is constrained by Areva's massive debts (and a restructure which will likely see EDF take on some of Areva's risks and liabilities).
The two Chinese utilities with a stake in the project − China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) and China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) − seem to be reluctant to increase their stake in the project. The Chinese are playing hard-ball: their asks include options for Chinese involvement in planned reactors at other sites in the UK (Bradwell and Sizewell are the two sites mentioned in media reports), and some sort of agreement for the UK to consider licensing Chinese reactor technology in the UK (e.g. the Hualong One design6).
The Guardian newspaper opined: "In short, the Chinese have [UK Chancellor George] Osborne over a barrel. One wonders what other incentives have been offered to avoid a humiliating U-turn on Hinkley. The final deal, assuming it is agreed, should be published in full: and parliament should comb every line."7
EDF hopes to sign an agreement with the Chinese utilities while Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the UK from October 20−23. But if any agreement is signed, much of the detail will be missing and it would not amount to a formal, binding agreement to proceed.8
A chorus of criticism
The Hinkley EPR project is now under sustained attack − and not just from the traditional anti-nuclear voices.9,10 The project is opposed by British Establishment figures such as Lord Turnbull (former head of the UK civil service), Lord Lawson (former Chancellor), Lord Howell (former Energy Secretary), and London Mayor Boris Johnson. It is also opposed by most of the mainstream and conservative UK newspapers.
Increasingly, nuclear power advocates are voicing outright opposition. Lady Barbara Judge, former chair of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, said the project is too expensive and uses unreliable technology.11 Vocal nuclear advocates George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Chris Goodall say that the Hinkley project is an overpriced white elephant and should be abandoned in favour of "other low carbon technologies, both renewable and nuclear."12
Bipartisan support for Hinkley may soon be a thing of the past. The Opposition Labour Party's new Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Lisa Nandy, wrote to the Public Accounts Committee in late September calling for an investigation into the Hinkley project. Nandy said: "I have serious concerns about the value for money this deal provides for bill payers, the likely impact of such a deal on the most vulnerable in society, and have serious questions about the bid process itself."13
Two credit ratings agencies have warned EDF and its Chinese partners that they face rating downgrades if they press ahead with Hinkley Point. Moody's said the project would have a "credit negative effect" because of the risk of large cost overruns and delays. Standard & Poor's warned of the impact on EDF's balance sheet of the Hinkley project.14
1. World Nuclear News, 3 Sept 2015, 'Flamanville EPR timetable and costs revised', www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Flamanville-EPR-timetable-and-costs-revise...
2. WISE Paris Briefing, 1 Oct 2015, 'EPR Flamanville 3: Justification Case of the Pressure Vessel', www.dropbox.com/l/s/lg10Xgg8YAPm3ckhDHUgjq
See also the EnerWebWatch website which has numerous documents regarding flaws with EPR pressure vessels: www.enerwebwatch.eu/EPR-t44.html
3. John Lichfield, 18 April 2015, 'UK nuclear strategy faces meltdown as faults are found in identical French project', www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/uk-nuclear-strategy-faces-meltdo...
5. Oliver Tickell, 2 Oct 2015, 'Flamanville nuclear safety fail sounds death knell for Hinkley C', www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2985650/flamanville_nuclear_safe...
7. 27 Sept 2015, 'Hinkley Point: what price avoiding humiliation?', www.theguardian.com/business/2015/sep/27/hinkley-point-what-price-avoidi...
8. Reuters, 2 Oct 2015, 'China president's UK visit is chance for EDF to clinch Hinkley Point deal', www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/reuters/article-3257301/China-presidents-UK-vi...
9. nuClear news No.78, October 2015, 'The Hinkley Saga is a National Embarrassment', www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk/nuclearnews/NuClearNewsNo78.pdf
10. Ian Fairlie, 21 Sept 2015, '30 Media Comments Opposing Hinkley C', www.ianfairlie.org/news/21-media-comments-opposing-hinkley-c/
11. Infrastructure Intelligence, 25 Sept 2015, www.infrastructureintelligence.com/article/sep-
12. George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, and Chris Goodall, 19 Sept 2015, 'We are pro-nuclear, but Hinkley C must be scrapped', www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/sep/18/we-are-pro-nuclear-but-hinkl...
13. Lisa Nandy, 28 Sept 2015, 'We need an investigation into Osborne's plans for nuclear power stations', http://labourlist.org/2015/09/we-need-an-investigation-into-osbornes-pla...
14. Robin Pagnamenta, 3 Oct 2015, 'EDF faces threat of credit downgrade over Hinkley Point'