Since writing this article: Jan 2017, explosion at EDF nuclear plant.
 

In 2015, it was discovered that both the Reactor pressure vessel casing installed at Flamanville France, and the one manufactured for Hinkley, could crack during use resulting in a catastrophic meltdown. These faults were only identified after a 7 year battle by the French nuclear regulator (ASN) for proper testing to be undertaken.(1)

Lessons have not been learnt. ASN (French Nuclear Safety Authority) press releases reveal that a cavalier attitude to nuclear safety is still evident in 2016; and outside France commercial imperatives appear to override safety.

Examples from the Regulator’s site THIS YEAR (2016):

  • ASN announce that a reactor at the new operational EDF Fessenheim power station would be shutdown until defective safety critical components had been replaced. (2)
    Worryingly the reactor was only shut down after the French regulator mandated tests. EDF did NOT PROACTIVELY test, despite the obvious potential for a Flamanville/Hinkley type metallurgical defect.
  • ASN state EDF’s safety (NDT) testing of the Flamanville reactor (France’s Hinkley equivalent) is unsatisfactory(3), and the personnel involved lack training!
  • ASN announce investigation into FALSIFICATION of safety test data. (4) This was not detected by the French regulator, but by a test company which discovered, by chance, a manufacturer had modified its results. Areva (supplier for Hinkley) has admitted falsifying safety records for 400 components (50 in currently operational nuclear reactors).

In China:

  • EDF has proceeded to encase 2 reactor vessels in concrete(5) ready for commissioning. EDF has not revealed how these were tested; and further NDT testing is now impossible. According to the Ecologist magazine “Experts believe it is likely they have the same faults as the Flamanville/Hinkley vessels”. The cynic might suspect a decision to proceed along the lines of: delay and re-manufacture will bring us nearer bankruptcy, the risk is outside France, there’s only a 20% chance of catastrophe and that will be in 20 years time when I’m retired or dead and unaccountable.

 

Will anything be better in the UK?

It would be naïve to believe a UK regulator (experience of overseeing a small number of OLD reactors) will be any better than the French (experience of new builds and of many more operational reactors).  The UK Regulator’s task  will also be harder – unlike the French, key suppliers will be foreign not local.

Additionally, we cannot be confident a regulator will identify all dangers. Falsification of safety data wasn’t identified by the regulator, but by a French testing company that found the results of tests it had undertaken for a manufacturer had subsequently been altered. I assume this company had some concern for the well being of its own country and of its employees that could be living in the fallout area of a French reactor. It is less likely this company would have bitten the hand that feeds it and damaged another French company by reporting it (in a foreign language) to a foreign regulator like the UK.

Since writing this article, I have also discovered that EDF rebuffed the UK regulator’s requests re Quality Control records for Areva components at Sizewell that might have been falsified.  The information was eventually provided 16 days later – but only after our regulator pointed out to ANR  that there was “significant public interest” (I assume over whether EDF’s Hinkley project should be given the go-ahead).