On May 3, the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) announced that Areva had informed it of "irregularities in components produced at its Creusot Forge plant." The problems concern documents attesting to the quality of several parts manufactured at the site. The ASN specifies "inconsistencies", pointing to shortcomings in quality control (as a best-case scenario) but also mentions "omissions or modifications" related to the potential falsification of manufacturing reports.
At least 400 of the 10,000 quality documents reviewed by Areva contained anomalies. Problems concern the concentration levels of carbon and other elements contained in metallic parts, which determine the resistance of machined components. These levels were incorrectly reported or not reported at all. The possible explanation is that figures which did not comply with regulatory safety requirements were masked using this process. However, this equipment must be extremely robust and operate to the highest mechanical standard to ensure total safety.
Questions over quality control were first raised after irregularities were found in late 2014 in the EPR vessel in Flamanville following an ASN request. Finding Areva's audit of parts manufactured since 2010 too limited and superficial, the ASN requested a more detailed assessment going back to 2004, when the first EPR parts were made. Areva, which has owned the Creusot site since 2006, decided to review reports on all parts made since the plant began operating in 1965.
Trust in quality control: broken
Fraud at this level, if it is proven, deeply challenges this entire system and our trust in how safe it is. It is therefore all the more shocking to hear the French minister in charge of nuclear safety downplay the initial findings the same way EDF and Areva have.
For example, on May 4, France's environment minister Ségolène Royal affirmed on RTL radio: "I reviewed the matter this morning before coming here and can safely say that initial results are good: the parts are compatible – it is the documents which are defective".
EDF, in turn, stated that "safety was not compromised", but did not produce any new evidence. Its analysis seems to be based on additional data provided by Areva. In view of the concerns regarding the technical quality and the sincerity of Areva's documents, this move can by no means be regarded as sufficient.
These declarations seem premature, to say the least. When errors are mistakenly or intentionally included in manufacturing documents, the true quality of the components cannot be known with certainty without verification or new tests. Like those under way for the upper and lower heads of the EPR vessel, these tests will be long and complex. It is currently impossible to predict acceptable results. The ASN itself has said that "the proof provided so far is insufficient to arrive at that conclusion."
At least a dozen countries potentially affected
In over 200 reports on the most safety-sensitive equipment in nuclear reactors, around 60 parts are thought to be currently in service in 19 operating reactors at nuclear plants across France. All of EDF's reactors, as well as other large components in other nuclear facilities, may be affected by parts produced at Creusot Forge.
In Europe, potential problems were confirmed in at least three countries:
- United Kingdom: ONR, Britain's regulator confirmed in a communiqué dated May 13 that the Sizewell B reactor is equipped with potentially affected parts from the Creusot site and stated it was waiting until May 31 for detailed information from Areva confirming whether the parts were in fact affected. The reactor vessel, and the replacement vessel closure lid, may be affected.
- Sweden: Similarly, Vattenfal, which operates the country's Ringhals station, said on May 18 that two components used in the Ringhals 4 reactor may be affected. Steam generators in reactors 3 and 4 have been replaced with Creusot-made parts.
- Switzerland: Vessels in the Beznau 1 and 2 reactors as well as replacement steam generators were supplied by Creusot. While there has been no official confirmation, Swiss media covered an ASN report suggesting that parts from Creusot may need more extensive testing.
Stations operating in other European countries which may also be affected include:
- Belgium: Tihange and Doel use replacement steam generators, vessel closure lid and pressuriser supplied by Creusot.
- Spain: Replacement steam generators used at Asco and Almaraz.
- Slovenia: Replacement steam generators used at Krsko.
Elsewhere, potentially affected parts are used in operational reactors on three continents:
- United States: Various reactors use potentially affected vessel components (Prairie Island 1 and 2), replacement lids (North Anna, Surry, Three Mile Island, Crystal River 3, Arkansas, Turkey Point, Salem, Saint Lucie, D.C. Cook), steam generators (Prairie Island 1, Callaway, Arkansas, Salem, Saint Lucie, Three Mile Island) and pressurisers (Saint Lucie, Milestone).
- Brazil: Angra II uses replacement steam generators.
- China: Equipment in the Guangdong 1 and 2, Ling Ao 1 and 2 and Ling Ao 3 and 4 reactors, as well as replacement reactor lids at the Qinshan station.
- South Korea: Parts in the Ulchin 1 and 2 reactors.
- South Africa: Parts in the Koeberg 1 and 2 reactors.
We need transparency now
To ensure complete transparency, Greenpeace France asks that this list of parts, along with detailed information about incriminated documents and the nature of the irregularities, omissions or modifications noted for each part, be made public. The little information available is not enough to measure the extent and gravity of the matter. The ASN have asked Areva to provide it with a list of the parts concerned. Greenpeace France believes more should be done.
In addition to the audit, systematic re-assessments of parts are needed When an error or forgery in a document renders compliance uncertain, only a technical review of the concerned parts can clear up any doubt. Greenpeace asks that once the list of concerned facilities is published, their operations be halted immediately so that an initial inspection can identify necessary tests and additional proof to be provided in order to clear up any doubt regarding the quality of all incriminated parts.
Reactors under construction: the uncertainty of EPR
The Flamanville EPR is the first among those affected by non-compliance problems. The first "serious anomalies" identified by the ASN in spring 2015 were found on the upper and lower heads of the vessel. Excess carbon in the central portion raises questions about their mechanical ability to withstand a sudden breakdown in certain conditions (notably, the need, in certain cases, to inject large amounts of cold water into the vessel, which can create a risk of thermal shock).
This means that the Taishan EPR under construction in China could also be affected by these discoveries, as is the Hinkley Point project in the UK (in the planning stages).
Above all, it demonstrates Areva's inability to control and monitor processes in the nuclear industry and, as a result, confirms an urgent need to plan for a reduction in the share of nuclear energy in the multi-year energy plan which should be published following the energy transition law adopted by France last year.