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Hinkley point nuclear project grinds onwards through a sea of problems

 NuClear News No.107 May 2018

EDF has detected quality deviations on certain welds at its new Flamanville-3 reactor – an EPR – the same type of reactor as the two being built at Hinkley Point. It has informed the French nuclear safety regulator ASN. Possible adjustments to the start-up timetable and costs can only be made after further checks and the licensing process by the ASN.

Flamanville-3 is currently expected to reach full power in Q4 2019 with fuel loading and first hot tests scheduled at the end of 2018. The quality deviations concern the welding of pipes on the main secondary system and are in addition to a deviation with respect to the correct application of “high-quality” requirements of the main secondary system that EDF flagged on February 22 to the ASN.

EDF has decided to carry out additional controls on the 150 welds in question and has ordered a full report into the causes and nature of the deviations. The additional controls and report will be completed by the end of May. The construction cost is currently estimated at £9.2bn. (1)

 When EDF first reported welding problems on Feb. 22, it initially said there would be no impact on safety, costs or the reactor start-up schedule. However, France’s ASN nuclear regulator warned on Feb. 28 that the substandard welding could well have an impact the start-up. Even before the welding problems emerged, ASN had warned several times the reactor’s construction schedule was tight. “Following the current checks and the licensing process by the ASN, EDF will be able to specify whether the project requires an adjustment to its timetable and its costs,” (2)

The welding revelations come just a few short weeks after Britain’s nuclear regulator raised concerns about substandard quality control checks on EDF’s supply chain for Hinkley Point (See nuclear News No.106)

25 years after French engineers began working on the EPR, they have yet to get one running. Flamanville was due to start up in 2012 at a cost of €3.3 billion. EDF now hopes to switch it on next year and says that the reactor will cost €10.5 billion, though these targets could slip further in light of the latest setback.

Flamanville has faced several other setbacks, the most serious of which was the discovery that the reactor vessel was weaker than planned because of an excess carbon content. A raft of quality control failings at the Creusot Forge plant that made the vessel were found, including falsified documents. This triggered the Office for Nuclear Regulation’s decision to review the Hinkley Point supply chain, leading to a critical report last month.

The Times said one Flamanville is quite enough: The 1,650 megawatt European pressurised reactor is a mere six years late and three times over budget. And all the more exciting for it being the prototype for an even bigger nuclear disaster: the £20 billion, 3,200MW Hinkley Point C. At least the French nuclear guinea pig is finally on its home run, due to be loaded up with nuclear fuel in the last quarter of this year. Always assuming that EDF can sort out the dodgy welding on the cooling pipes. Anyway, it’s another EDF success story, up there with the carbon spots on the steel for Flamanville’s nuclear dome, the ones that potentially weakened it. Or the lost safety records from its Creusot Forge supplier. And it does make you think. It’s bad enough Theresa May signing us up to the world’s most financially radioactive energy project, without monthly reminders of EDF’s technical ineptitude. (4)

Hannah Martin, head of energy at Greenpeace UK, said: “The reactor destined for Hinkley Point was supposed to be cooking turkeys by Christmas 2017. As yet more construction flaws are revealed at its sister plant under construction in France, it’s starting to look like the only turkey the EPR reactor design is going to cook is EDF.”

 Commenting on the news about defects in welding Stop Hinkley spokesperson Roy Pumfrey said

“The European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR) reactor proposed for Hinkley Point C is like watching a car crash in slow motion. It is the unloved, unwanted, and unbuildable child of former EDF boss Vincent de Rivas. We can still stop this before it gets even worse. Although abandoning this ill-fated project now would incur cancellation costs consumers could still save almost £1.5bn per year for 35 years from 2027 onwards. Flamanville is seven years late, one in Finland is ten years late and even two in China will be at least five years late.” (5)

Dave Toke, reader in Energy Policy at Aberdeen University says the welding problems could spell the end for Hinkley C. Treasury backed loan guarantees have been linked to a target date for commissioning of the Flamanville plant of the end of 2020. Yet the current target date of completion by the end of 2019 has been thrown in doubt by the freshly announced problems. According to the analyst Professor Steve Thomas, the rules agreed between the European Commission and the British Government stipulate that until Flamanville 3 was in commercial service, there would be a cap on the guaranteed loans effectively meaning funding would be primarily through equity. It is very difficult to see how EDF could build the plant without the Treasury loan guarantee – something like £17 billion (probably more) would be needed as a loan. EDF just won’t have the ability to raise anything like £17 billion on the bond markets. Indeed the decision to go ahead with preliminary works on the site (building a jetty and a cement works) alone, without the loan guarantee being in place, was regarded as so risky that the firm’s Finance Officer resigned in protest at the decision. But EDF will not start building the main parts of the power station until it has the necessary finance. (6)

New problems have arisen at the EPR in Finland where TVO is carting out hot tests at Olkiluoto 3. The connection line of the main pipework of the plant, the reactor cooling circuit, vibrates more than allowed. According to the Finnish regulator, STUK, the reason for the vibration is still under investigation. (7)

China has begun loading fuel at its EPR at Taishan – a sign that the long-delayed project could finally be close to completion. Fuel loading could take several months, meaning the reactor could go into full operation and be connected to the grid before the end of the year. China began building the EPR in Taishan in 2009, with the first of two units originally scheduled to be completed in 2013. (8)

Meanwhile, the Irish Parliament’s (Oireachtas) Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government decided to investigate the possible transboundary effects on Ireland of Hinkley Point C. Professor John Sweeney of the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, Professor Stephen Thomas of Greenwich University and Attracta Ui Bhroin of the Irish Environmental Network were invited to give evidence. The meeting coincided with a recent consultation, organised by the Irish Government and facilitated by Irish Councils, that allowed environmental groups and concerned members of the public to put forward their concerns to the UK Government over the transboundary effects of the proposed Somerset new nuclear site. (9)

Attracta Uí Bhroin, of the Irish Environmental Network told the Committee that her intention was not to panic people or cause unnecessary concern, but her organisation wants to ensure Irish people’s rights are upheld. Although the process for the new nuclear site at Hinkley Point, which is 250km from the coast of Ireland, began five years ago, it was only in 2016 that the news about the plans broke. Hinkley Point C was given the final investment approval by French energy giant EDF, which has a two-thirds share and which is building the plant in conjunction with a Chinese company. Speaking to TDs and senators Uí Broin pointed out that of the eight power plants the UK has planned as part of its energy expansion, “five are on the west coast of the UK, facing Ireland on the most densely populated east coast”. Some of these plants are planned in locations closer than Hinkley Point C. The potential economic impact of a nuclear leak or meltdown could be very serious, she explained.

A 2016 ESRI report considered a scenario where there was a nuclear incident, but with no radioactive contamination reaching Ireland. “Even then they estimated that impact economically could be in the order of €4 billion,” she said, explaining that an incident such as this would have serious implications for the agrifood and tourism industries in Ireland. In the event of an incident where there is a risk of contamination, she said there are no detailed plans in place to protect Irish people, the water supply, or the country’s farm animals and produce.

Uí Bhroin was joined by Professors John Sweeney and Steve Thomas, who outlined some of the specific concerns around safety assessment and treatment of waste. Sweeney was critical of the models used in risk assessments – some older models were used in calculations, for example, despite the fact that more modern ones exist. Thomas spoke about some of the parts of the plant which are being made in France and which French regulatory authorities will not a clear for use in French nuclear plants. Uí Bhroin said there was an “extraordinary level of frustration, anger and disappointment” among environmental groups at the government’s reaction to these plans. (10)

Prof Thomas added that the reputation of both Flamanville and Hinkley’s supplier “is in tatters” after it emerged in 2015 that parts of the safety-critical reactor vessel supplied to Flamanville did not meet specification, he said. The French nuclear safety regulator, ASN, ordered the company to review its quality control procedures and “it has emerged that quality control documentation had been falsified at Creusot” for several decades, he added. In April 2018, EDF Energy also announced that up to 150 welds in key parts of Flamanville did not meet the required specification. Prof Thomas added: “This has created major concerns about parts manufactured there for nuclear plants in France and elsewhere.” (11)

John Sweeney, emeritus professor of geography at Maynooth University and a climate change expert, told the Oireachtas committee on planning yesterday that estimates used by the UK to assess its impact were not credible. “Combinations of rare events do occur, as was demonstrated by Fukushima [the nuclear incident in Japan in 2011], where total atmospheric releases are now estimated to be between 5.6 and 8.1 times that of Chernobyl,” Professor Sweeney said. Meteorological data used was “inadequate”, he added, arguing they relied on wind figures for three years when 30 years was the standard period required. “It’s rather dangerous to draw conclusions from a very short period. Three No2NuclearPower nuClear news No.107, May 2018 12 years of data, even ten years of data, is insufficient to characterise the wind climate at an individual location, and any modelling based on this is highly suspect.” He claimed the UK government failed to take account of climate change in estimating extreme high and low water levels when the difference between the annual high water mark and a once in a 10,000-years high water level at the site of the plant was just 1.3 metres. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted sea levels would continue to rise for centuries, with increases of up to three metres possible, which meant the UK’s estimates were not credible, he said. He claimed the failure to acknowledge that there was a known flood risk meant there were “serious implications for the safety of spent fuel which is intended to be stored on site for up to a century” (12)

May 19, 2018 - Posted by | politics, UK

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