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Leaked internal documents critical of French nuclear establishment

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#330
06/04/1990
Article

(April 6, 1990) Circulating in French newspapers and among ecological groups are leaked reports, made by order of the French government, which criticize both the state electric utility Electricite de France (EDF) and the French Commissariat for Atomic Energy.

(330.3299) WISE Amsterdam - Included among them is the annual report by the IGSN (Inspection General pour la Surete Nucleaire) on nuclear safety in EDF at the end of 1989. The report, prepared by Pierre Tanguy (director of IGSN, which is a part of EDF), is highly critical of safety at all levels.

As the report admits, "1989 was a 'hot' year for EDF safety" and gives an unprecedented admission of the desperate situation faced by the French nuclear industry. The report divides the problems into three main types:

  • The first group covers problems arising from the complexity of the installations. Of these Tanguy says, "My site visits regularly reveal the difficulties experienced by those responsible in keeping up to date the procedures for both running and maintenance."
  • The second kind of problems are due to aging of the installations. "The wear in control rod clusters of 900 MW reactors has been much faster than expected." The most important example of this resulted in a blockage of Gravelines.
  • The third kind of problems are, Tanguy says, more "worrying", in that they result from insufficient control of modifications which have been made to systems which should have been proven at this stage of the French PWR program. Difficulties of this kind have been seen at Nogent, such as the faults in the computerized protection system and the swelling of the fuel storage rack. Two major generic problems in 1300 MW reactors directly related to safety have marked the year 1989: the inconel welding defects on the instrument passages on pressurizers (faults due to design errors) and the new type of deformation found in steam generator tubes. "This is comparable to the phenomena of denting, similar to that observed in the USA several years ago, followed by corrosion fissures under stress...", the exact origins of which are still the subject of discussion.

The report then elaborates on those problems defined as the more seriow. Further, Tanguy says, "The risk of a sudden break of one or several steam generator tubes, is incontestably the most worrying possibility today, bearing in mind the state of the steam generators on several sites. The probability of such an accident occurring in the next few years is not negligible."

In commenting on the report, Jim Rowe of Vivre Sans Le Danger Nucleaire de Golfech says that, interestingly, only five years ago the official figures put the risk of an accident at more than one in 1,000,000. Following the Chernobyl accident, Tanguy recognized for the first time that an accident was possible in France. He now admits the possibility of such an accident occurring in France in the next ten years is less than one in 50! And he is pessimistic about any significant improvement.

* * * * * *

In France, where 75% of the electricity is of nuclear origin, the national planning bureau noted that already, beginning a few years ago, EDF had an over-capacity. EDF director Delaporte recently justified this over-capacity by referring to export profits. In the leaked reports, however, the French government admits to dumping prices for electricity exports: Prices for exported electricity (22.4 centimes per kwh) are lower than production costs (22.5 centimes per kwh).

EDF has begun a public relations campaign after an uninterrupted flow of reports of incidents in French nuclear power plants. The French weekly Journal du Dimanehe wrote at the beginning of March that incidents occur on an average of 15 per month.

Recently, a mechanic was "lightly" contaminated during routine maintenance work at the nuclear power plant at Bugey (southeast France). Other incidents were reported from Cruas (dep. Ardeche), Gravelines (north France) and Cattenom (east), and more serious problems have been reported at Nogent (Nogent-surMarne) and at Fessenheim (Alsace).

Maintenance at Fessenheim is taking much more time than foreseen. A shortage has arisen of highly qualified workers needed for repairs of corrosion and the large number of small radioactive leaks because the workers must often be replaced after a few days, having received the maximum permissible radiation dose quickly.

The costs of routine six-months maintenance checks will rise as maintenance lasts longer. This worries the unions which fear that workers will be encouraged to take more risks and that technical repairs will be done too quickly to be considered safe, in order to reduce the costs.

EDF now has to take into account that French nuclear power plants will have shorter lifetimes than budgeted for. They were supposed to last 30 to 40 years. The oldest nuclear power plant, in Saint Laurent-des-Eaux on the river Loire, will be closed after some 21 years.

According to the government report (still not made public officially), the French populace will accept nuclear power only if a solution is found soon for storage of nuclear waste. Strong protests in the regions assigned for storage have forced the government to delay decisions for one year.

Full copies of the IGSN report can be obtained from: Jim Rowe, Canazille, 47270 St. Maurin, France, tel: 53 95 38 31.

Sources:

  • De Volkskrant (Netherlands), 8 Mar. 1990
  • taz (FRG), 8 Mar. 1990
  • letter from Jim Rowe (France), 28 Feb. 1990.

Contact: Peter Diehl, Schulstr.13, 7881 Herrischried, FRG, tel and fax: +49-7764-1034
Jim Rowe (see above address).