Disaster of nuclear power in France

Newsworthy situation in light of voting on the Swiss Nuclear Phase-Out Initiative

by Dr-Ing Ernst Pauli

It is difficult to find in the media, but it would be actually worth a headline: 21 out of 58 French nuclear reactors are currently out of service.1 One-third of the French nuclear power plants is off the grid and doesn’t produce electricity. Normally once a year nuclear power stations are taken off the grid for maintenance reasons, replacement of fuel rods and possibly also for installing any retrofits. Of course, these outage times are distributed over the year so that sufficient capacity for generating electricity is available. But the current shut downs are not planned. They have been decreed by the Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN) with similar duties than the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate (ENSI) as a preventive measure and as civil protection of the people.2 Some stations were taken directly out of operation by a decree. In others already in maintenance additional checks were required, which will extend the maintenance period for months. In the last 18 years Nuclear facilities in France didn’t produce that little power as of today. Whilst during Wintertime the demand for electricity typically rises greatly.
Using power transferred from Germany and operating more fossil fuel power stations in France the gap can be bridged. Germany has large power generation capacity in reserve and can deliver sufficient power. The lights in France will not go out despite the critical number of power stations in shutdown. But since September the monthly average electricity prices for “day-ahead” trade on the European electricity exchange (EPEX SPOT SE) in Paris rose by a factor of 2½ to 7.5 Euro-cent per kWh.

The ASN reacts to the security flaws

The anomalies were found in the steel used in already installed components of the reactor pressure vessel in the French power plant in Flamanville currently under construction. Carbon levels are higher than specified and can cause embrittlement of components under pressure and temperature. The necessary fracture toughness of materials is not achieved. Leaks and release of radioactivity in operation cannot be excluded. Following these first investigations and findings in Flamanville further irregularities and manipulation became evident in the certification of steels for reactor pressure vessels, steam generators, used in today operating French nuclear power plants. On the 25.10.2016, a parliamentary hearing was held on the basis of the findings, in which the irregularities in numerous French reactors were stated.3 Investigations were expanded further with the above result. Now the production and quality documents of 9,000 components, manufactured in the French Le Creusot forge and by other forges are checked.4 First results show deviations from prescribed specifications of used steel parts up to manipulated quality documents. It is to be assumed that components of Swiss nuclear power stations have been manufactured under similar circumstances in the 1960s, and the quality of these components may not be guaranteed.
The ASN has drawn clear consequences out of these findings. Hats off to the officials and engineers who have drawn painful, but clear conclusions out of the known up to now. They have taken a large number of potentially unsafe nuclear power plants off the grid and ordered comprehensive investigations.

What does this mean for Switzerland?

One week ahead of the voting on the nuclear phase-out initiative rather an outcry should come from the Swiss media because of such events. As already surprising defects have been found in Beznau 1, which are according to the AXPO stemming from the manufacturing of the reactor pressure vessel in the 1960s, other Swiss nuclear power plants could be affected. But it stays remarkably calm. There are no reports on this topic in the mainstream media, and even an active internet searcher on the subject of nuclear power finds just randomly corresponding web-sites and messages. With regard to the upcoming voting on the nuclear phase-out initiative, citizens should after all be informed about the security issues of the Swiss nuclear power plants and also the French nuclear power plants. Greetings from NPP Fessenheim at the border to Switzerland. The new situation in France demonstrates once more that the security credentials for the nuclear power plants are worth nothing. After 30, 40 or more years, all the sudden material defects, quality deficiencies and manipulation are detected. Also the ENSI, declaring always its close contact with the colleagues in other countries, maintains a low profile with respect to the situation in France.
The problems in Beznau 1 are known and as a result the reactor is taken off the grid since March 2015. But this is now again putting a new complexion on the situation. Mühleberg with its provisionally repaired cooling jacket will be taken out of service by the operators themselves. Is there anything orderly managed? If the Swiss nuclear power plants are operated beyond the fixed dates for nuclear phase-out, the initiative is proposing, maybe for a total of 60 years, then surprises as they now take place in France cannot be ruled out.

Arguments in the voting discussion do not apply

In the public discussion on the nuclear phase-out, also in the records prepared for the voters, there is an argument among others, that one couldn’t turn off the nuclear power plants, because otherwise the operators could come up with damage claims to the Federal Government of several billion Swiss Franc. The replacement of nuclear power by “dirty coal power” would decrease the CO2 balance. The environmental pollution caused by radiation, the devastating damages caused by the uranium mining and the unresolved problem of nuclear waste disposal are not an issue. The great risks of nuclear energy, created on the basis of manipulated documents or missing security credentials are deliberately concealed. A stale taste remains there given the political debate on the nuclear phase-out. The State and its authorities have to exercise a duty of care to the citizens, that outweighs any other consideration given the risks of nuclear energy and the well-known omissions and manipulations, and the resulting threat to the population.
One wouldn’t be able to quickly substitute the power production of the Swiss nuclear power plants by renewable energy. To fill the power gap, as described in the energy strategy 2050, it would need more time as indicated by the “managed exit”. But many, also large projects to use the hydroelectric power of Switzerland are currently put on hold due to economic reasons. The numerous photovoltaic initiatives of private citizens are waiting for funding. A dynamic action to fill the power gap as quickly as possible, does not come up, but should be initiated by political inputs. Clear shut down dates and an accelerated expansion of renewable energies are the only way to avoid a nuclear disaster like in France.     •

1    International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). “Fehlerhafte Stahlbauteile stürzen französische Atomindustrie in die Krise.” 14.11.2016, www.ippnw.de
2    Buchsbaum, Lee. France’s Nuclear Storm: Many Power Plants Down Due to Quality Concerns. 1.11.2016, www.powermag.com
3    Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN). Hearing of the Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices on the anomalies and irregularities detected on nuclear pressure equipment. 3.11.2016, www.french-nuclear-safety.fr
4    De Beaupuy, François. Areva Said to Extend Probe of Le Creusot Forge Irregularities. 3.10.2016, www.bloomberg.com