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The European Pressurized Reactor, an industrial failure and a threat to society

The French nuclear programme was forcibly imposed to the country by Pierre Messmer in February 1974, taking advantage of the fact George Pompidou was dying. The French Council of Ministers voted the launch of the « Contrat-Programme 1 », which was very quickly drafted to be voted before the death of the President. Analysts of the industry have also criticized the French decision to develop the pressurized water technology (PWR) instead of the boiling water technology (BWR), a choice probably made because PWRs are more appropriate for the production of military plutonium (because of the facility to discharge the rods and retrieve the plutonium 239 and 241 bred from the fertile uranium 238) even though they are more difficult to build than BWRs. There are four EPRs being built currently, one in France (Flamanville), one in Finland (Olkiluoto) and two in China (Taïshan). Another French EPR is planned in Penly. Another EPR reactor in upstate New York had been programmed, at Nine Mile Point, but it was officially cancelled in Spring 2014. Two EPRs will also be built at Hinkley Point in the United Kingdom.

The European Pressurized Reactor has been developed in order to be the new generation of PWRs. One of its theoretical advantages is its ability to produce more power (it can generate up to 1, 6 GW, while usually PWRs do not climb above 1,3 GW) – the EPR is mainly a « supercharged PWR ». One of its specificities is the use of a recycled fuel, the MOX (« mixed oxide »). It contains approximatively 90 – 95% fertile uranium and 5 – 10% plutonium. The MOX exists therefore as a consequence of the existence of the military plutonium industry. Used fuel from the plants (95% fertile uranium, 1% plutonium, 4% ultimate waste) is stored for 3 to 5 years in water pools, and then plutonium is extracted and sent to the Melox plant in Marcoule (France), the only one in the world currently producing MOX. So the use of MOX is a solution to make use of plutonium coming from used fuel (the industry says it’s a solution to reduce proliferation, even though the IAEA actually says it induces a proliferation risk), and of fertile uranium left out by enrichment, as well as a solution for saving enriched uranium. In Russia and in the USA MOX was also seen as a solution to burn military plutonium coming from dismantled weapons. MOX is used in only 10% of the world’s nuclear reactors, half of them being in France, where MOX, at a concentration of 30%, is part of the fuel of 21 of the 58 nuclear reactors. The EPR will be 100% fueled with MOX.

The first problem of using MOX in a nuclear reactor is that the criticity point for plutonium is below the criticity point of enriched uranium (its fusion point is below the fusion point of uranium), so it is clearly less stable than traditional fuels : the probability of a grave accident involving fusion of the core (formation of a « corium », a 3 000°C radioactive magma) is much higher than with normal fuel. Greenpeace says it also increases by 50% the effects of an accident, for instance a plane crashing in an EPR. Another problem with using MOX fuel is its high radiotoxicity. Before being used to fuel a plant, MOX is one million times more toxic than normal uranium fuel. So it is extremely complicated to load it into a vessel, for instance. The radioactive waste of the EPR is five to seven times more toxic than the waste of PWRs. And used MOX cannot be retreated again so plutonium stocks are only reduced by about 15%. A third problem with the MOX is that it involves the transit of plutonium across France, and aerial and maritime contamination with radioactive elements in the retreatment plant of The Hague.

The EPR has also been strongly valued for the fact that, in case an accident involves the formation of a corium (fusion of the core, a worst-case scenario), like in the Tchernobyl and Fukushima accidents, there is a « corium recuperation area », the so-called « core catcher », under the reactor vessel (the pressure vessel where fission takes place), to avoid any penetration of the magma into the ground, and chain reaction (nuclear explosion) if it reaches the groundwater table. In the Tchernobyl case 300 Dombass miners had to be knowingly sacrificed (they were all made posthumously Heroes of the Soviet Union) to dig in three weeks a provisional « core catcher » under the plant in order to avoid a megatonic explosion.

It has been revealed on June 4, 2014 by the French satiric magazine le Canard Enchaîné that the concrete of the containment building of the nuclear reactor (the picturesque « ombilic ») being cast for the EPR in Flamanville is full of holes, like Swiss cheese. Because it was built under bad weather, fractures of up to 42 centimeters appeared. EDF had to delay the construction by 4 months to fix the damages. And this is not the first time there have been problems in the building site, including because of the use of bad quality concrete. EDF has imported from Russia low-cost steels for the « polar bridge », a structure 60 meters above the ground used to load and discharge the reactor vessel with its uranium fuel. The quality of the steel was never checked. When the insufficient quality of the 780 tons of steel was discovered, fixing it delayed the construction by one year. But for one visible fault, how many are left unnoticed ? What to expect for the « core catcher » for instance, or for the reactor vessel head (the « cap ») ? Everything in the construction has to be done extremely quickly and under pressure, because if the reactor cannot be connected to the electricity network in 2016, another public consultation will be needed, which EDF obviously does not want. This is obviously not healthy for the construction of a nuclear reactor.

In Finland and in France, where Bouygues is building the plants, the company massively used subcontracting to carry on the work. A company involved, Atlanco (called Rimec in the past), was known to be treating shamefully its workers, in both Olkiluoto and Flamanville, refusing to pay one third of their salaries, according to the Helsingin Sanomat (the first Finnish newspaper). The company was paid 24 euros a hour for each man but was paying them only 8 euros. Note that two workers have also been killed in accidents in the Flamanville building sites.

Areva suffered an industrial « Waterloo » in Finland, as the building of the Olkiluoto plant has been delayed until at least 2018 according to Finnish economics newspaper Kauppalehti. The company evacuated most of its expatriated workers. The cost of the nuclear power plant has risen considerably, Areva being pushed into losses in 2013 because of the delays. The delays of the Flamanville EPR have also caused billion-euros losses to Areva. The sole reactors currently being built on time are the Chinese ones, and one can imagine the working conditions required to respect the delays, as well as the quality of the work. EDF actually acknowledged that the electricity produced by a second EPR in France would cost 0,6 euros / kWh, twice the price it promised five years before. The Flamanville EPR was expected to be built in five years at a price of 3 billion euros in 2007. In 2012 it was expected to be built in more than 8 years at a price of above 8 billion euros.

Ségolène Royal, while she was candidate to the primaries of the French Parti Socialiste in 2012, promised she would close the Flamanville nuclear plant if she was elected. Now she is French minister for the Environment but has not expressed herself on the topic, and François Hollande is a clear supporter of the EPR. The French organisation « Les 7 vents du Cotentins » says the money spent in the EPR could have been better spent in renewables energies (especially wind turbines), to produce the same electrical power with the same amount of money, while creating more jobs. But it is clear that there is a « sink cost fallacy » among industrials who have planned the EPR. Once a technology has been developed and money has been invested in research, industrialists are always keen to try to sell the technology at every price to customers, even though more competitive technologies might also emerge. In South Africa, Areva has probably overpaid the small UraMin company in order to corrupt key officials around South African president Thabo Mbeki, and sell its EPR (an enormous call for tenders for nuclear power plants was being prepared and Areva was competing against Toshiba-Westinghouse). The company paid 2,5 billion dollars for mines that seemed to be worth half the price then, and that are today worth… nothing, according to the accounting of Areva itself.

The EPR is an industrial failure and a threat to society. France’s industrialists have not made the good choices and have tied up the hands of communities everywhere EPRs are being built. The British, in particular, should decide to abandon the Hinkley Point reactors while they still have time. It is clear we should be investing in renewable energies instead of putting all of ourselves in danger because of a failed technology. Dismantling power plants will also be a dramatic blow on our finances. Nuclear energy is economically and environmentally unsustainable.

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