French regulator lists concerns at new-year press meeting

3 February 2017

Pierre-Franck Chevet, Chairman of France’s Autorite de Surete Nucleaire (ASN - Nuclear Safety Authority) gave an overview of the issues facing ASN and the strategic priorities for nuclear safety and radiation protection in 2017 at a press meeting on 18 January. He said that a year ago, the situation with regard to nuclear installations was worrying in the medium term, adding: “If I had to summarise my thoughts today, I would say that the situation is worrying, omitting ‘in the medium term’.

The challenges ahead  include life extension and safety improvement for reactors  approaching 40 years of age. Studies are currently under way for the 4th periodic safety review of France’s 900MWe reactors and ASN expects “the generic position concerning the 900MWe” reactors to be known in 2019.

As to ageing fuel cycle and research facilities, ASN has already received 20-25 periodic safety review files and 30 more are expected in 2017. “For most of these facilities, this will be their first periodic safety review since they started operating. It must provide the opportunity to significantly improve their safety,” he said. On Fukushima follow-ups, he noted that some work had been undertaken in 2015 and 2016, but that “these operations will extend over 5 to 10 years”.

Chevet said that all the major installation construction sites were experiencing difficulties or were behind schedule, such as the Jules Horowitz Reactor, the Iter fusion project and the EPR at Flamanville NPP. “This is probably the result of a loss of hands-on practice and experience in the area. With the exception of the EPR reactor vessel, the problems we are finding are essentially of an industrial nature and do not involve safety issues", he clarified. Areva had submitted the majority of the files concerning serviceability of the EPR reactor pressure vessel (RPV) to ASN by the end of 2016, and ASN will give its position on the RPV anomaly by mid-2017.

Two major events dominated 2016: technical anomalies similar to that of the EPR RPV were detected in some steam generators at EDF reactors and in October ASN asked EDF to inspect steam generators at 12 reactors, nine of which have been restarted. Chevet said the inspections "were necessary”. Information from the inspections was “basically positive, but things could have gone differently” and France’s electricity generation system must have “the necessary margins to cope with this type of event". With regard to irregularities observed at Le Creusot Forge (the origin of the RPV anomalies), he said some were minor deviations but others “may amount to falsifications". ASN has asked Areva to review of all the parts manufactured at Creusot Forge in the past. "This is a truly major issue”, he noted, referring to the discovery of “concealed files” dating back to the early 1960s recording the anomalies, which were treated internally. Analysis of 100 concealed files concerning French nuclear installations found virtually no safety issues, except unit 2 at Fessenheim NPP, which was shut down in 2016 and is still under examination.

However, other irregularities were discovered necessitating a complete review of all the manufacturing files. "ASN does not preclude the possibility that these reviews reveal new and serious irregularities," Chevet said.

"The manufacturers are still in an extremely difficult financial, economic and budgetary situation, while being confronted with major issues. ASN, which is involved in the oversight of the system as a whole, is also lacking human and financial resources,” he added. Staff numbers of ASN together with IRSN, its technical support organisation, have increased by nearly 70 over the last three years. “This is really the best one could hope for in the current budgetary context, but it does not quite meet our staffing requirements for the medium term.”

While the overall context is more worrying than at the beginning of 2016, it is important not to deny the scale or  existence of difficulties. On the anomalies, individuals and petitions have accused ASN of scaremongering by "making too much" of the issues. “This reaction comes down to denial. A problem cannot be solved by pretending it does not exist," Chevet stressed. But it is also important not to give up. “One must simply do what has been planned": Finish the complete products review undertaken by Areva, particularly at Le Creusot.”

As to the economic situation of the licensees, an industrial reorganisation has been decided upon and must be taken through to completion. “This is a message addressed to the government and industry players", he said.

ASN  must reflect upon changes in its funding system and oversight “must be adapted in order to prevent or detect cases of fraud". ASN will set up a working group to consider this, and its first conclusions will be presented in mid-2017.

Chevet also spoke about waste management and decommissioning, noting that low-level waste “ends up, on average, being transported half way across France”, which “is not necessarily the best solution given the transport and environmental issues” and deserves public debate. "Decommissioning operations are relatively rare at present. However, the facilities will be shut down one day, at which point this issue will have to be addressed on a massive scale.”


 



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