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Macron’s French Nuclear Farce

December 7, 2022

By Linda Pentz Gunter
Counterpunch

French president, Emmanuel Macron, is still trying to sell the EPR, a reactor that ended up mostly on paper.

I’ve been searching for the equivalent word in French for ‘chutzpah’ but so far ‘insolence’ or ‘audace’ just doesn’t quite cover President Emmanuel Macron’s renewed pitch to sell French nuclear technology to the United States.

Nevertheless, that was a central purpose of Macron’s state visit to the nation’s capital last week. In a mise-en-scène worthy of a Feydeau farce, he even brought a whole atomic entourage with him including representatives from the state regulator (Autorité de sûreté nucléaire) as well as cabinet members and the (bankrupt) French nuclear power industry.

It’s chutzpah because the backdrop to Macron’s nuclear promotional tour is the most breathtaking pile of wreckage imaginable. Sacre bleu! If you wanted to paint a picture of a complete industrial fiasco, you need only look at today’s French nuclear power industry.

And yet, here is Macron still blithely attempting to sell the French “flagship” reactor, the EPR, likely second only to the breeder reactor as the most abject failure in nuclear power plant history. EPR stands for Evolutionary Power Reactor. With it, France has achieved the unimaginable, to send evolution in reverse.

Macron has not abandoned the beloved breeder either, which also managed to reverse the legend of its namesake — Phénix — by descending metaphorically into the ashes of nuclear history. And oulàlà, a similar fate befell the Superphénix, a bigger breeder and an even bigger fiasco that cost $10.5 billion and produced power only sporadically before it was permanently shuttered.

French Green Party politician, Dominique Voynet, called Superphénix “a stupid financial waste,” which accurately describes any and all of today’s new nuclear power aspirations.

And yet, last February, just before the elections that saw him retain his throne in the presidential palace, Macron announced the country would go full (radioactive) steam ahead. France would build between 6 and 14 new EPR-2 reactors (yes, the “new improved” EPR!) in the name of climate, extend the operating licenses of the entire current reactor fleet, initiate projects for small modular reactors, and resume exploration of so-called Generation IV (read “fast” or “breeder”) reactors.

Macron bragged that France would build six of the new reactors on three existing sites, with the first start-up date around 2035 and at an estimated cost of $52 billion.

Whatever Macron’s smoking, they’re not Gauloises.

On December 1, after Macron’s meeting with Biden, the White House put out a “joint statement” from the two leaders covering a variety of topics, including energy, under which they stated that “the United States and France plan to set up a nuclear energy small group within the Partnership’s framework,” and that “The Partnership will promote advanced nuclear power globally, which has a key role to play in order to reduce global CO2 emissions, while continuing efforts to limit the spread of sensitive enrichment and reprocessing technology.”

All of this, fantastically, is being played out during a period when the French nuclear sector has arguably reached its nadir. Half of the country’s 56-reactor fleet are still offline, a crisis that has persisted for months. Some went down due to summer heatwaves or routine maintenance outages, but many of them are closed for safety reasons after the discovery of severe corrosion in piping. Repairs have turned out to be more complicated than expected, pushing back restart dates.
That has forced France to import power, something that happens routinely in winter anyway as French homes rely on electric heat, a demand the domestic French nuclear sector cannot actually meet even on good days.

Now, as winter sets in, there are warnings of power outages. The French have been advised to limit their use of electricity-guzzling gadgets like dishwashers and washing machines.

So much for reliable nuclear power. As Matthew Dalton wrote in The Wall Street Journal in October, “France’s vaunted nuclear fleet has been about as effective as the Maginot Line, the French fortifications that did little to stop the German invasion during World War II.”

Unavaiability of French Nuclear Reactors in 2021 Graph from 2022 World Nuclear Industry Status Report.

A year ago, even before the latest rash of safety flaws emerged, shares in EDF, the French national utility, plunged when cracks were detected on pipes of the Civaux reactor, causing the precautionary shutdown of the similar Chooz reactor as well.

This likely precipitated Macron’s decision to fully nationalized EDF earlier this year, after the utility predicted it was “expecting a hit of roughly £28billion ($34.4 billion) to its full-year core earnings”.
French nuclear manufacturer, Areva, formerly Cogema, effectively went bankrupt in 2015 and was rescued by the government while its reactor business was handed over to EDF. (As with many such corporate embarrassments, the company emerged under yet another new name, Orano.)
It was the Areva forge at Le Creusot that was caught falsifying quality control documents and even manufacturing defective safety components, one of which appears to have ended up in the unfinished Flamanville 3 reactor.

That project, on the Normandy coast, was intended as the French EPR flagship. But it is now 12 years behind schedule and the latest — and unlikely — start date is projected to be 2023. That would be 13 years after construction first began. The original $3.7 billion budget has now ballooned to at least $21.5 billion and climbing.

This makes Macron’s claim that yet more new French reactors could be running by 2035 beyond laughable.

Then there is the other EPR flagship — Olkiluoto 3 in Finland — where construction began in 2005. Riven with lawsuits, corporate walkouts and technical failures, the reactor fired up for a testing phase in March 2022, 12 years late and at triple the original projected cost. But the reactor was abruptly shut down in April, and again in August and September, due to problems with feed water pumps and steam turbine failures. It’s now expected to be delivering electricity to the Finnish grid by the end of the year, assuming no other technical failures occur.

Even in China, the only place the EPR is actually operating, and where reactors are usually built with speed (although possibly with questionable quality control) the French EPR Taishan Unit 1 had to be shut down in July 2021 due to damaged fuel rods and remained disconnected from the grid for a year.

It was just predicted that the two EPRs being built in England at the Hinkley C site are likely delayed until 2036, ten years later than the recently announced 2026 startup date. That tab will also likely also soar well beyond the latest $31 billion. And while EDF just got a handy windfall in the form of a $815 million UK government subsidy for its at-sea-level Sizewell two-reactor project in Suffolk, UK, the actual estimated cost is at least $31 billion, so this is more like a transfusion than an infusion of needed cash. A year ago, EDF had announced the premature closure in 2028 of its Heysham 2 and Torness nuclear power plants in the UK, two years earlier than planned.

But here is Macron in Washington, talking about a nuclear “renaissance.” He actually used that word and seems to have missed the memo about the previous “renaissance-that-never-was” in the US when combined construction and operating license applications were filed for 28 new reactors, including four EPRs. (Additional EPR sites were considered but no other applications were filed.)

The first of the EPR suite was supposed to be built at the existing two-reactor Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant in Maryland. Indeed, Calvert Cliffs-3 was to be the very first reactorin the entire US nuclear “renaissance”, having become, in July 2007, the first company in 30 years to submit a new construction and operating license application to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Another “flagship”.

But when US partner, Constellation Energy, pulled out of the Maryland project, EDF could not go forward as the sole foreign owner, illegal under the Atomic Energy Act. It went looking for new domestic partners. No one stepped up.

The US EPR plans, like almost all the others, vaporized, leaving only two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors still under construction, at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, years behind schedule and wildly over-budget. Only two others, the V.C. Summer AP1000 reactors in South Carolina, ever broke ground, only to be abandoned amidst scandal and cost over-runs.
All of this leaves Macron looking like a carnival barker, or worse, a snake oil salesman.

“Who will buy my sweet red roses? Two blooms for a penny”, sang the rose seller in Lionel Bart’s musical, Oliver! About now, French reactors probably aren’t worth much more than that.

This first appeared on Beyond Nuclear.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.

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D.C. Circuit Skeptical of Challenge to Texas Nuclear Waste Site

Daniel Moore, Bloomberg News
Nov. 10, 2022

A three-judge panel at the D.C. Circuit on Thursday sharply questioned arguments by environmental groups challenging a federal license of a privately owned interim nuclear waste storage facility in Texas.

Petitioners argued that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval last year of Interim Storage Partners’ facility violates the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act because it includes language allowing a contract with the Energy Department. The case is the second legal challenge against the interim high-level waste facility licensed for Andrews County.

The provision is unlawful because the department, under that law, must select a permanent waste repository before siting a temporary facility, said Diane Curran, of counsel for Harmon Curran representing Beyond Nuclear.

“The only issue before this court is whether you should disregard the plain terms of the license condition, as suggested by the NRC, based on extraneous promises by the agency the fulfillment of the unlawful condition will never ever be carried out or allowed until Congress changes the law,” Curran said.

Hypothetical Development

But Judge Gregory Katsas of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit pointed out the license is focused on privately owned waste and that the DOE provision would be a hypothetical future development.

“There’s still the other language authorizing arrangements with privately-owned waste, and you have no argument against that,” Katsas said. “Why wouldn’t we, at most, just excise the offending language and sever the rest? There’s no reason why the provision can’t operate as related to privately owned waste.”

Judge David Tatel presented a scenario in which the license could stand if the court received assurances from the government that the unlawful provision will never be implemented.

Curran said severing the provision would be a helpful remedy, but government assurances were not.

Commission Opposition

The NRC asked the judges to reject the challenge.

“The licensee’s requirement is to provide a proof of contract, and if the contract that it relied on in order to satisfy the condition were illegal, the NRC would say no,” said Andrew Averbach, the NRC’s solicitor.

If there were any future contract between the facility with DOE, parties could then seek judicial recourse, Averbach added. But the central premise of this license will be storing spent fuel involving private entities, and reactor licensees will continue to hold title of ownership.

“We’re not talking about DOE taking title,” Averbach said. “We’re talking about private licenses doing something with the fuel that they currently have title to.”

Texas officials sued the NRC for approving the license over the state’s objections, arguing in part that the NRC overstepped its authority by licensing a facility before a permanent one is established. Judges held oral arguments in August in that case at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans.

The facility could hold 40,000 metric tons of spent fuel if all the phases of the project play out.

The case is Don’t Waste Michigan v. NRC, D.C. Cir., No. 21-1048, Oral argument 11/10/22

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To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Moore in Washington at dmoore1@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com

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Japan says it has so far detected no abnormalities at nuclear power plants

March 16, 2022

Motoko Rich,
New York Times

Japan’s Nuclear Regulation Authority inspected several nuclear power plants after a magnitude 7.3 earthquake hit late Wednesday night off the coast of Fukushima, the site of a nuclear meltdown in 2011.

As of 1 a.m. Thursday, the authority said that it had not detected any abnormalities at plants in Fukushima; in Onagawa in Miyagi Prefecture; or in Tokai in Ibaraki Prefecture.

Tokyo Electric Power Company said that a fire alarm was still sounding in one of the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, where the 2011 meltdown occurred. The plant has been shut down and undergoing an enormous cleanup since the disaster 11 years ago.

Water pumps for spent fuel cooling pools at a separate power plant in Fukushima were down early Thursday, but Tokyo Electric said there was still water in the pools for now, and that one pump had returned to operation before 2 a.m., according to NHK, the public broadcaster.

The quake left millions of Japanese without power, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that Tokyo Electric was expected to be able to quickly restore service.

Oil companies join fight against US nuclear waste facilities

Beaumont Enterprise
March 11, 2022

CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) — Oil companies operating in the most active oilfield in the United States are the latest opponents of plans to store spent nuclear fuel from commercial power plants in the Permian Basin.

Federal regulators already have granted a license for one interim storage project in West Texas, and developers are awaiting approval for a similar facility in southeastern New Mexico.

Tommy Taylor, chairman of the Permian Basin Coalition, said in a recent statement that rising gas prices and global tensions involving Russia — one of the world’s largest oil producers — should be a concern.

“Gas prices are soaring and families are struggling to pay bills,” Taylor said. “Yet the federal government wants to keep America’s energy producers on the sidelines by keeping oil and gas production low, and to make matters worse, they are putting America and our allies at risk by proposing to store high-level nuclear waste in America’s most productive oil field.”

The coalition has called on Congress to include language to block the storage projects in the federal omnibus spending package, the Carlsbad Current-Argus reported.

The coalition’s members include Shell Oil Company, the Texas Oil and Gas Association and dozens of Texas cities, counties and chambers of commerce.

The Nuclear Regulator Commission recently granted a license to Waste Control Specialists for a storage facility in Andrews, Texas. They’re still considering an application by Holtec International for a similar facility just to the west of the state line in New Mexico.

Both facilities would see thousands of metric tons of spent fuel shipped into Texas and New Mexico from nuclear power plants around the country for temporary storage pending development of a permanent repository.

Critics, including top elected officials from Texas and New Mexico, have voiced concerns because the federal government lacks any plans for a permanent resting place for the radioactive waste.

U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Ted Cruz of Texas recently introduced legislation aimed at banning federal funding from supporting such a site.
Dozens of environmental groups and nuclear watchdogs also have outlined their concerns about the projects in comments to the U.S. Energy Department.

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Spent fuel facility receives NRC license days after Texas moves to ban it

Sep 14, 2021

Nuclear Newswire

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued a license to Interim Storage Partners (ISP), a joint venture of Waste Control Specialists and Orano USA, to construct and operate a consolidated interim storage facility for spent nuclear fuel in Andrews, Texas. Issued on September 13, the license comes just four days after Texas governor Greg Abbott signed a bill to block such a facility from being built in the state.

The license is the second one issued by the NRC for a consolidated storage facility for spent nuclear fuel. The first was issued to Private Fuel Storage in 2006, but the facility was never constructed. The NRC is currently reviewing an application from Holtec International for a similar facility proposed for Lea County, New Mexico. A decision on that application is currently expected in January 2022.

The ISP facility: ISP intends to build the storage facility on property adjacent to Waste Control Specialists’ low-level radioactive waste disposal site already operating under a Texas license. The NRC license authorizes ISP to receive, possess, transfer, and store up to 5,000 metric tons of spent fuel and 231.3 metric tons of greater-than-Class C low-level radioactive waste for 40 years.

The company has said that it plans to expand the facility in seven additional phases, up to a total capacity of 40,000 metric tons of fuel. Each expansion would require a license amendment, with additional NRC safety and environmental reviews.

The licensing: ISP submitted a revised license application to the NRC in July 2018. Waste Control Specialists had previously submitted an application for an interim storage facility in conjunction with Areva and NAC International but withdrew that application in 2017.

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