FRANCE is often held up as an example of the success of nuclear power, because it is the source of about 70 percent of the nation’s energy. Since 1955, when its first commercial-level nuclear reactor was started, France has had only one serious accident, an explosion of a metallic waste recycling furnace at its Marcoule complex in southern France five years ago, which killed one worker and injured four others. Except for that one blemish on its record, France’s nuclear power industry is considered safe and productive.
Safe and productive, that is, until one delves a little deeper into the current state of the industry and its economic health. From that perspective, France’s nuclear industry is an utter disaster, and an object lesson for advocates here who try to paint initiating a nuclear program in the Philippines as being no more complicated than buying a used car.
Last Thursday, the Paris prosecutor’s office announced it was opening an investigation into allegations of a systematic cover-up of manufacturing flaws and other technical problems involving nuclear components made at the Le Creusot foundry of Areva NC, the industrial group that builds and provides fuel for France’s nuclear plants. Areva is a public company, but the French government is its majority owner.
About 6,000 (or more), “documentation irregularities” dating as far back as 1965 are now being scrutinized by authorities from France, as well as other countries that imported components produced by Areva. Among the more alarming discoveries so far, as disclosed by the company back in September, are 87 “irregularities” in components for nuclear plants operated by state-owned EDF (Électricité de France), 20 concerning equipment for the problematic and still under construction Flamanville EPR (European pressurized reactor, a next-generation plant), and flaws in a steam generator intended for the 900-megawatt Gravelines 5 nuclear plant, whose construction has been on hold since April and whose start date has been pushed back several times.
It was the discovery in 2014 of “weak spots,” according to a Reuters report, in Flamanville’s reactor vessel that tipped off Areva NC to possible problems in the Le Creusot facility, but it has only been within the past three months that the scale and seriousness of the scandal has begun to leak out to the public.
In a November 29 interview with The Guardian, Gérard Magnin, a former director of EDF who resigned in July in a protest over EDF’s Hinckley Point C project in the UK – Magnin called the planned 18 billion plant “very risky,” and declared he wanted nothing to do with it – said France’s nuclear sector is “in its worst shape ever.”
As of December 8, 17 of EDF’s 58 nuclear reactors were offline due to safety checks, obliging EDF to import power from the UK for the first time in four years. The French company’s two biggest projects, Flamanville and Hinckley Point, are mired in controversy; Flamanville is five years behind schedule and several billion euros over budget, and may never be operational, while EDF’s 12-billion euro commitment to the Hinckley Point project is in jeopardy because of the company’s poor financial shape. EDF has admitted it has 37 billion euros of debt (critics, however, have said it has underreported its liabilities), and worse yet, the cost of power produced at many of EDF’s aging plants – some of which are a similar design to the Philippine’s own 30-year-old Bataan Nuclear Power Plant – is higher than current electricity prices. Over the next few years, 17 of these plants will have to be retired at a cost EDF says will be about 14 billion euros, but which at least two outside reviews say will be closer to 34 billion euros.
Things have gotten so desperate, in fact, that EDF has resorted to threatening to sue anyone who says it is technically bankrupt, even though every indication is that is precisely the case.
This is the state of the world’s most successful and productive nuclear power industry, an example the advocates of resurrecting the BNPP say the Philippines should try to emulate. If you still think that’s a good idea, next week we’ll take a look at the world’s other nuclear role model, Japan.