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Eye on France: Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble at Flamanville nuclear site

General view of the construction site of the third-generation European Pressurised Water nuclear reactor in Flamanville, France.
General view of the construction site of the third-generation European Pressurised Water nuclear reactor in Flamanville, France. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

The next generation nuclear reactor, being constructed on the north French coast at Flamanville, is already way over budget and well past its sell-by date. Now safety inspectors have found dodgy welds in the works. Boom!


There’s more grief for the French nuclear sector. Yesterday, we learned that huge stretches of the Loire are contaminated with a radioactive substance called tritium, probably because of leaks from one or all of the five reactors which line the river.

That’s not good.

Today’s story concerns the pressurised water reactor being built by the French national electricity supplier, EDF, at Flamanville on the Channel coast.

This project, which is supposed to represent the future of nuclear energy, is already so far over budget and so far behind schedule that it makes the Egyptian pyramids look like they sprang up overnight.

Le Monde starts its article on the latest setback by asking “will the agony of Flamanville ever end?”

The latest problem in a litany longer than War and Peace has been provoked by safety inspectors who have discovered that there are flaws in the welding of the tubes which get the steam from the nuclear boiler to the turbines.

There are 58 joints in question, including eight which are so deeply buried in the concrete foundations of the huge structure that, if the inspectors insist on getting them fixed, the entire site will effectively be returned to the starting point. The electricity chappies have suggested that those eight could, perhaps, be overlooked.

Don't worry, it'll probably be fine

In fact, says Le Monde, EDF engineers have already suggested to the safety inspectors that all 58 dubious joints could be left as they are until after they get the whole business bubbling away, with a view to patching them up in 2024.

Even that would delay the launch date until 2022, ten years later than the original promise, and push costs beyond the current estimate of 11 billion euros, well over three times the starting budget.

For the first time, says Le Monde, the possibility raises its ugly head that EDF might have to close down the site and put the key under the door. The centrist paper says abandoning the project at this late stage would be a disaster for the electricity company, which had been hoping to sell the technology showcased at Flamanville all over the world. To say nothing of the billions of euros already wasted.

That decision has not yet been taken. There’s to be a meeting of top EDF management over the next few days to consider the options.

The nuclear watchdog is not asking the impossible. They say huge progress has been made on safety at the site and that the required repairs are technically feasible, without going back to square one.

The government will have an acute interest in the outcome, especially since President Emmanuel Macron had been hoping that the rest of France’s ageing reactors were to have been replaced with Flamanville-style gizmos. No new reactors will be built in France before the next presidential election in 2022.

Which means that the planned closure of the country’s four remaining coal-fired power stations, due during the Macron presidency, might have to be pushed back by a day or two.

That will be sure to make the green contingent see red.

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