EU pushes worldwide binding standards on nuke plant builds while France leads way with possible Chernobyl II

Publish date: March 7, 2010

Written by: Charles Digges

NEW YORK – The head of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso began a European Union-wide push on Monday to enforce European nuclear safety standards on the building of atomic energy plants to become the binding worldwide standard, while French president Nicolas Sarkozy chastised international banks’ reluctance to invest in nuclear power.

The development is seen by analysts as something that could clear the path for France to sell its expensive technology and expertise to other countries. But French environmental groups are warning that the wares its country have on sale are catastrophes waiting to happen.

Sarkozy said Monday that he would ask international financial institutions and banks to clear the path for financing civilian nuclear reactors to help emerging nations avail themselves of nuclear power.

“I do not understand and I do not accept the ostracisation of nuclear projects by international financing,” Sarkozy told reporters at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

“The World Bank, the EBRD and the other development banks must make a wholehearted commitment to finance such projects,” he said.

EU head Barroso said in a speech at the same conference that the European Union was “the first big regional actor to make the main international norms for nuclear security internationally binding.”

“Others must now come along with us,” Barroso said, according to a copy of the speech pre-released to the International Herald Tribune.

The initiative shows the Union seeking to ensure that nations using nuclear energy put in place systems, and possibly equipment, with standards as high as Europe’s, to ensure the peaceable spread of the technology. But the initiative was not designed to promote European technologies or designs in particular, according to EU officials who spoke with the newspaper.

Post Copenhagen arguments for nuclear

A new international post-Copenhagen nuclear push is underway that seemed to start with the United States setting aside billions in loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants, even though President Barack Obama had, upon taking office, indicated that there would be no further nuclear builds in America until safe storage to replace Yucca Mountain had been found.

Other countries are joining the bandwagon under the aegis that nuclear, and its zero carbon emissions energy production, will aid individual nations in meeting emissions cuts they pledges to make under the Copenhagen accord.

If member governments of the Union agree, the bloc is expected to present the proposal at a summit meeting scheduled for Washington in mid-April to be hosted by Obama, at which world leaders are to discuss balancing the goal of nuclear disarmament with the prospects for rapid growth in the civilian nuclear power sector.

The Union agreed to nuclear safety standards with the International Atomic Energy Agency and adopted them into law last year. The standards include safe construction and operation of reactors, handling of radioactive materials, providing adequate levels of information to the public, using independent safety regulators, and decommissioning.

Bellona Europa Director Eivind Hoff cautiously said from Brussels that, “It is high time to get internationally binding safety norms for nuclear power plants.”

Bellona has long been opposed to using nuclear power, even though it produces zero emissions while producing energy, as no country in the world has yet to develop a safe method of storing spent nuclear fuel or nuclear waste for more than 100 years – when hundreds of thousands are needed.

Currently, waste and spent fuel worldwide are stored on an interim basis in pools of water or in casks, many near ground level. That leads to concerns about the vulnerability of the materials to disasters like terrorist attacks, and it raises persistent questions about whether the materials can be effectively monitored for periods that exceed recorded human history many times over.

The legislation suggested by Mr. Barroso would oblige member states to adhere to standards on waste disposal, and it would oblige member states to put in place national programs to handle waste. But the legislation would not mandate a date to establish underground disposal sites.

Meanwhile, a Finnish company, Posiva, is digging a tunnel at Olkiluoto in anticipation of final approval for storing waste almost half a kilometre underground, according to news reports.
A Swedish consortium of reactor operators says it has found a suitable site, won agreement from the local government to bury waste permanently there, and is seeking government licensing. US authorities had sought to store high-level waste inside Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, but that plan foundered because of local opposition and scientific data suggesting it was unsafe, leading Obama to cut it’s funding.

Are French reactors safe or cost effective? Ask Finland…

Inasmuch as the French may be the driving force behind pushing banks to fund more loans for nuclear power plants, their new flagship EPR reactor, a French environmental group has warned, should not be sold anywhere.   

Yet the first versions of the reactor are currently being built in Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France. Areva, France’s state owned nuclear corporation, is battling construction delays and massive cost overruns in Finland and Flamanville.

Bellona’s Hoff zeroed in on Sarkozy’s criticism of international banks, saying: “If Sarkozy had pondered a little more on the impressive cost- and time over-runs at the Olkiluoto nuclear plant being built in Finland by the French … he would have understood banks’ reluctance to finance new nuclear plants. His statement is an appalling case of political arm-twisting of banks.”

But the problems go deeper than financing.

A release, obtained by Bellona Web from The French Network for Nuclear Phase-out, has issued a statement indicating that France’s new EPR reactor project, a project for which is currently underway in Finland, is fatally flawed – and that Électricité de France (EDF) knows it.

In the release, The French Network for Nuclear Phase-out said it obtained a number of confidential documents from a source at EDF confirming this. The EDF documents are currently under review by experts.

“Some operating modes could cause the EPR reactor to explode because of a control rod cluster ejection accident (These control rod clusters moderate the nuclear reaction),” reads the release from The French Network for Nuclear Phase-out.

“These operating modes are mainly related to an objective of economic efficiency, requiring the power of the reactor to adapt to electricity demand. Thus, in order to find a hypothetical economic justification for the EPR, its designers chose to take the very real risk of a major nuclear accident,” said the release.

“Moreover, most of the arguments given in favour of the EPR … have been proved to be false … So the EPR reactor design seems to increase the risk of a Chernobyl-type accident, which would lead to the destruction of the confinement and mass dispersion of radionuclides in the atmosphere.”

Should the reports from The French Network for Nuclear Phase-out turn out to be true, the payback costs will come in human life.

The release from The French Network for Nuclear Phase-outwas not the first sign of trouble with the EPR reactor’s projected safety record. 

On November 4th, 2009, the nuclear power regulatory authorities in France, Finland and the United Kingdom issued an unprecedented joint letter to Areva, the manufacturer of the EPR reactor design. This letter cited serious problems with the EPR’s fundamental digital Instrumentation and Control systems (I&C).

“The issue is primarily around ensuring the adequacy of the safety systems (those used to maintain control of the plant if it goes outside normal conditions), and their independence from the control systems (those used to operate the plant under normal conditions),” said the joint letter, downloadable to the right.

“Independence is important because, if a safety system provides protection against the failure of a control system, then they should not fail together. The EPR design, as originally proposed by the licensees and the manufacturer, AREVA, doesn’t comply with the independence principle, as there is a very high degree of complex interconnectivity between the control and safety systems.”

In April 2008 the French nuclear safety agency reported that a quarter of the welds inspected in the secondary containment steel liner are not in accordance with norms, and that cracks have been found in the concrete base. EDF stated that progress is being made on these issues raised very early in construction.