Safety concerns raised over EPRs

FINLAND - The future of the new European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) designed by Areva SA and French national utility Electricite de France (EDF) has been called into question after a leaked letter sent by a Finnish nuclear watchdog raised safety concerns.

The installation of the first EPR reactor, rated at 1,600 megawatts (MW), is currently under way at the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear power plant site, located on an island off the western coast of Finland. However, the project has been dogged by three years of delays, Greenpeace protests and cost overruns that are estimated to have added up to an additional 50% of the original $4 billion construction budget. Now, a condemning letter from STUK, the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, to Areva is threatening to delay this and future EPR projects.

The letter to Areva's Chairperson of the Management Board, Anne Lauvergeon, criticizes the company's poor response to "evident errors" that STUK pointed out a year ago regarding the EPR safety systems and other issues. Ironically, the EPR system is promoted by its makers as having superior safety systems compared to other nuclear reactors.

"I want to express my great concern on the lack of progress in the design of Olkiluoto 3 NPP [nuclear power plant] automation," he wrote. "Without a proper design that meets the basic principles of nuclear safety... I see no possibility to approve these important systems for installation," said the letter from Jukka Laaksonen, STUK's Director General. "The systems with highest safety importance are to be designed by Areva NP SAS but unfortunately the attitude or lack of professional knowledge of some persons who speak in the expert meetings on behalf of that organisation prevent... progress in resolving the concerns."

The leaked letter was sent in December 2008. Areva has admitted that it has since sent some, but not all, of the requested documentation demanded by STUK and claims that the company will have done so by the end of June.

This is an alarming development for the new third-generation EPR reactor, because EDF is hoping to use at least four of the reactors at new UK nuclear sites located in Sizewell in Suffolk and Hinkley Point, Somerset. Just this week, the UK's Health and Safety Executive said that the government is on course to complete the Generic Design Assessment of the EPR reactor and the AP1000 reactor from Westinghouse by the June 2011 deadline. However, he also admitted that the government has also has experienced "significant delays" in receiving responses to technical queries regarding the reactors, neither of which are fully complete.

EDF announced last December that the cost of installing the second EPR reactor at the Flamanville 3 Nuclear Power Station in France had leapt from the original $4 billion budget to $5.6 billion.


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