The announcement of a first cost overtaking regarding the two EPR being built in England at Hinkley Point and of a new delay of the putting into activity of the French one at Flamanville has incited the government to launch an audit about the choice of the nuclear reactor. This decision will be unavoidably interpreted as a defiance signal. It will not help the population support of new projects when French people benefit from the lowest electricity price in Europe and when France, thanks to this power production technique has one among the lowest level of greenhouse gas emission in Europe, twice lower, for instance than the German one. It will not help more the sale of the two other nuclear power plants which were planned in China, on Taishan site and even less the project to build six ones in India, which has an urgent need to diversify its power mix if the country wants, in the same time, to deliver electricity to its population and to reduce the growth of its CO2 emissions.
The EPR, named when it received its confirmation, was conceived to cope with the worries generated by the Tchernobyl catastrophe occurred in 1986. That drama was partly caused by human mistakes. Futures models will have to be designed in a way that such errors cannot provoke heavy damages as the reactor heart melting. It is what was denominated the “passive safety”. France and Germany, then, asked, at the end of the Eighties to Framatome, the engineering company, and to Siemens to get together to conceive a reactor fulfilling that requirement and an enterprise with equal shares of the capital, NPI, was created. In 1992, the basic design was approved and a green light was given to get the certification by the safety authorities of the two countries. So the EPR was officially born.
In the same time, EDF commissioned to Framatome its last order for a long time of a N4 model nuclear reactor to be built at Civaux. During that period, with the support of the State, the Atomic Energy Commissariat had developed another model of reactor, the “surgenerateur”, which reduced uranium consumption and the highly radioactive wastes. After the Phenix prototype, located in Marcoule, with a 600MW power, France launched at the end of the Seventies, the Superphenix built at Creys-Malville with a 1200 MW power. But many technical incidents occurred during its operation which affected its safety. That had a high impact in the public opinion which started to make the confusion between atomic energy and nuclear power. The Lionel Jospin government then decided to stop the power plant in 1997.
In reality, it was not only Creys-Malville which was stopped but all the investments and the industry found itself without any orders during more than ten years when major efforts had been made to conceive the EPR. When, at last in 2005, the Finnish utility TVO sent by Siemens came, Areva, which now brought together Framatome and nuclear fuels activities of COGEMA, was not in the position to refuse to answer to its proposal. But a nuclear plant is more or less like a car. The reactor is the equivalent of the engine, the control system the equivalent of the gear box and the nuclear fuel of diesel or gasoline. In the car industry it is not because you know how to produce engines than you are able to assemble all the elements and to build the car.
The mistake made by Areva was to think that because it knew how to manufacture the reactor it will be able to build the entire power plant. The mistake was all the more grave and carrying heavy consequences because the EPR had never been built before. The State and EDF have a heavy responsibility, first, in leaving during such a long period the industry without ordering the reactor when it was at the origin of the project and then and mainly, to have let Areva take that order alone. All the conditions were gathered to lead toward a financial disaster. TVO did not have the EDF know-how to manage the site. The reactor was a prototype and Areva had not built a reactor for more than ten years and had lost the necessary technical abilities due to the retirement of a large share of the engineers who had made the success of the nuclear program in France.
The decision to build Flamanville in 2007 came much too late. To the loss of competence of EDF and Areva was added public works companies one which have a role quite as essential and which had to adapt themselves to the new safety rules and to the new structure of the reactor. The accumulation of delays and the increase of the construction costs, from initially 4 billion to more than ten billion euros today have no other cause. Comparison with what has happened in China is revealing. Areva and EDF signed a few time after the Flamanville one a contract for the building of two EPR in the south of the country not far from Canton. The work has lasted a little more than expected but costs have been kept under control and the power plants are connected to the network and are normally functioning. The country didn’t stop to build nuclear power plants since the first contracts signed with France at the end of the Eighties which has allowed it to keeping the necessary competences. Cooperation between EDF and its local partner, CGN, never stopped and relationship with the Chinese companies in charge of the works are based on mutual respect to the difference to what happened in Finland where many legal procedures occurred. The success of the Chinese project well demonstrates that it is not the model of reactor itself which is in question but the mistakes made in its country of origin, France, because Germany had abandoned the nuclear production and Siemens withdrew itself from the company created at that time.
The last mistake has been to build two reactors at Hinkley Point before having completely remedied to the weaknesses which appeared at Flamanville. Being the majority shareholder and in charge of the exploitation of theses power plants, EDF takes a double risk. As at Flamanville, it will have to support any costs slide. But the British companies which are building it have known the same loss of competence than their French counterparts. So the first slippages have not surprised anybody but have weakened again the EPR image and the French nuclear industry whose it has always been a jewel of the economy. To that must be added the regulation risk. The British government has taken commitments about the price of the produced power but who can be sure that these commitments will be held when we see the current ups and downs about the Brexit? Worried about these risks, the EDF chief financial officer, at that time, had decided to resign to show his disagreement.
France is the last country in Europe to master nuclear power plants technologies. At a moment when Germany and tomorrow Belgium are about to close their nuclear power plants, that power source will be the only one which doesn’t emit greenhouse gas and which will be able to cope with the renewable intermittency. It will be necessary to build new power plants. Except if we leave that to Russian or Chinese technologies, the EPR is the only solution. It is why, instead of criticizing it, it is necessary to defend it.