March 30, 2011 11:27 pm

EDF warned to improve reactor maintenance

France’s nuclear safety authority has warned EDF, the country’s monopoly operator of atomic power plants, that it needs to improve the maintenance of its reactors.

André-Claude Lacoste, the head of the Autorité de Sureté Nucléaire, also said on Wednesday he would consider suspending construction of the new generation of nuclear reactors, the EPR, during a safety audit of the country’s fleet of 58 operating plants, which the watchdog is carrying out in the wake of the nuclear accident in Japan.

His comments came as he presented the regulator’s annual report to parliamentarians, who pressed him on the lessons France could learn from the disaster at the Fukushima plant.

The French government has ordered the ASN to lead a reactor-by-reactor study on safety at the plants, in addition to carrying out stress tests of the reactors as part of a European Union initiative launched as a result of the Japanese accident. Findings will be published by the year’s end.

The report said that although 2010 had been a “satisfactory” year for safety, EDF needed to “better anticipate a certain number of maintenance operations and the replacement of components”.

France, which derives 75 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, is one of the countries at the forefront of the push to revive nuclear power with its EPR design.

Its first EPR is close to completion at Flamanville, in northern France. The €5bn ($7bn) plant is one of the biggest nuclear power stations ever designed, with an output of 1,650MW.

Last year EDF discovered “anomalies” affecting dozens of its reactors, including corrosion on parts of the steam generators within its older reactors. EDF replaced the parts and asked permission to continue operating some reactors, despite a deterioration in conditions. This request had been refused, the regulator said.

The safety authority put its weight behind persistent union warnings over the scale of outsourcing of maintenance by EDF in recent years. The report said the monitoring of subcontractors needed to be “rapidly improved” and reinforced.

The warnings come as France called for a G20 summit of energy ministers to discuss safety standards for new plants. France currently holds the presidency of the G20.

The French announcement came on the same day that Yukiya Amano, the UN’s nuclear chief, said he had invited government leaders to attend a conference on safety procedures at nuclear plants worldwide. The International Atomic Energy Agency will hold the meeting between June 20 and June 24.

President Nicolas Sarkozy travels to Japan today to offer his country’s help in finding solutions to the nuclear crisis.

Mr Sarkozy will be accompanied by the head of France’s Atomic Energy Commission, the French nuclear research centre, and representatives of the radioprotection and safety authorities.

Anne Lauvergeon, chief executive of Areva, the state-owned nuclear engineering and fuel company, has also flown out to Japan with a team of five specialists in contaminated water.

Areva supplies fuel to Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the crippled Fukushima plant, and has about 100 staff in Japan. The team would look at how to deal with the water that had been contaminated in efforts to cool the reactors down, the options for the spent fuel still locked in reactors, and how to stabilise the pools where spent fuel was stored, Areva said.

EDF could not be reached for comment.

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