The future of EDF’s Hinkley Point facility is becoming increasingly bleak. After EDF announced development of the site in Somerset would halt until the UK Government made good on their promise for funding, the French energy company has discovered a ‘very serious’ fault in the construction of an identical EPR power plant in Normandy, France.
The problem appears to be with the quality of the steel used to make the 50ft high safety casing, known as a pressure vessel a crucial part of the nuclear reactor. France’s nuclear safety inspectorate is taking the potential failing ‘very seriously’ and has ordered a second investigation to verify results.
The pressure vessel encloses the nuclear material within the ground breaking new ERP reactor. During the life of the pressure vessel the steel is irradiated from neutron exposure, becoming embrittling. This is a normal by product of pressurised water reactors and this gradual deterioration is built into reactor life cycles. However should the steel used at the Flamanville site prove defective it could cause a critical containment failure should the reactor ever be brought online.
If the steel is defective, the completion of the prototype EPR plant already behind schedule and nearly three times over budget could be delayed, possibly for several years. Identical pressure vessels destined for Hinkley Point have already been manufactured but, thanks to the delays in funding, are yet to be delivered. This does mean superior pressure vessels can be constructed for Hinkley but it does little to alleviate the woes plaguing EDF at Flamanville.
There are fears the fault could undermine the French state-owned nuclear construction company AREVA, whose financials for 2014 made for grim reading indeed. AREVA are contracted to build EPR reactors at Hinkley by 2023 and a third at Sizewell in Suffolk. This critical delay could push the company under as it risks scaring off Chinese state investors who were in talks to cover part of the £14 billion price tag hanging around the Hinkley project.
The final investment decision for Hinkley which will (eventually) supply 6% of the nation’s energy - is now expected in June as the UK and Austrian governments argue over funding in the European courts.
Propsoed Hinkley Point C Facility
Anti-nuclear campaigners are claiming this fault to be the death knell of the ERP reactor and the Hinkley Point site as a whole. This is largely wishful thinking as there is no indication EDF intend on slowing down, let alone abandoning either multi-billion site. The identification of a fault in the steel, whilst serious, was identified long before either reactor was due to go online.
Providing new pressure vessels can be manufactured to sufficient standards, and no other critical failings occur, there’s nothing to suggest the US and China would back out of purchasing the next generation ERP, a grave fear held by the French government, EDF and AREVA. Albeit one they’re staying very tight lipped about.
An EDF spokesperson commented ‘further investigations of the steel safety casing’ would be conducted as soon as possible. They also confirmed that work at the €8.5 billion Flamanville site would continue as planned.
The nuclear safety watchdog, ASN first revealed the fault at the start of April. In more detailed public comments Mr Chevet, of the ASN, revealed that the steel ordered for the pressure vessels for six EPR reactors including those earmarked for Hinkley Point appeared to have been made ‘inaccurately’.
Tests in December on the pressure vessel already installed at Flamanville suggested that the steel at the top and bottom of the casing contained an excessive amount of carbon. This meant that the enormous cylinder which surrounds the reactor and prevents radiation leaks may be ‘too weak’ and ‘could rupture’.
All the casings were forged by AREVA at Le Creusot in central France as long ago as 2007-08. Replacing the casings is possible but would expect to cost a great deal of time and money, dragging out both Flamanville and Hinkley Point even further and even greater over budget.
Mr Chevet said a second opinion had been sought and that experts in other countries ‘may be consulted’. He added, that ‘mistakes had been made’, going ton to say: ‘It is more than 15 years since the last nuclear power stations were constructed in France. ‘The expertise in some trades has not been sufficiently passed on from one generation to the next.’
The original plan to develop an ageing nuclear site at Hinkley Point for a new generation of nuclear reactors goes back to previous administration in January 2008. It was taken over by the present government as the keystone of its strategy to meet international commitments to reduce carbon emissions.
Together with a third EPR at Sizewell, Hinkley is expected to generate 16 per cent of Britain’s electricity and six per cent of its energy needs by the mid-2020s.
With work on hold at Hinkley Point, it affords EDF and AREVA some breathing room to replace the pressure vessels that were ordered. The safe deconstruction and removal of the allegedly defective pressure vessel in Flamanville could see the French nuclear power plant finished after its UK counterpart.
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