A French watchdog on Tuesday called for the country's nuclear plants to beef up safety following the Fukushima disaster under a programme it estimated would cost tens of billions of euros.

"/> A French watchdog on Tuesday called for the country's nuclear plants to beef up safety following the Fukushima disaster under a programme it estimated would cost tens of billions of euros.

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NUCLEAR

Nuclear watchdog urges safety boost

A French watchdog on Tuesday called for the country's nuclear plants to beef up safety following the Fukushima disaster under a programme it estimated would cost tens of billions of euros.

But no reactor faced any immediate shutdown, it said.

It also called for a “rapid reaction force” to be operational by the end of 2014 that could intervene in a nuclear accident in less than 24 hours.

The recommendations, handed to Prime Minister François Fillon, were drafted by the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) as part of an inspection of France’s nuclear industry in the light of the March 11th nuclear catastrophe in Japan.

“The ASN believes that the installations that have been assessed have a sufficient level of safety to warrant it not to request any immediate shutdown,” the agency said.

“At the same time, the ASN believes that continuing operations require existing safety margins to be strengthened as swiftly as possible.”

It gave operators until June 30th to spell out measures to strengthen safety in response to floods and earthquakes, providing for instance backup systems for power, coolant and plant operations, and their procedures for handling an emergency.

The measures should aim at “preventing a serious accident or limiting its spread” and “limiting massive releases (of radioactivity) in an accident scenario,” the ASN said.

The measures will require “tens of billions of euros in investment,” the ASN’s president, André-Claude Lacoste, told a press conference.

He noted that a single emergency diesel generator, designed to be protected against floods, costs “tens of millions” of euros. Another major expense would be building “bunkers” to serve as emergency backup for plant controllers.

“I don’t see how this cannot have an impact on (electricity) prices,” he warned.

A senior executive with the state-owned electricity provider Electricite de France (EDF) said the recommendations would lead to additional costs for the corporation of up to €10 billion ($13 billion).

“We had scheduled investment of around €40 billion (over 30 years) in our 58 reactors on the basis of plant operational life of up to 60 years,” said Jean-Marc Miraucourt, head of engineering for nuclear facilities.

“Our preliminary estimates are that we will be in the range of €40 to €50 billion,” he told AFP.

Pre-Fukushima, EDF estimated the overall cost of nuclear-generated electricity at €46 per megawatt-hour. This is now likely to be revised to €46-50 per megawatt-hour, he said.

Fillon’s office said the government would ensure that ASN’s requests would be carried out “in their entirety (and) on time.”

An anti-nuclear group, the Nuclear Observatory, dismissed the ASN report as a whitewash and Greenpeace said the billions of euros should be spent on alternative energy sources.

France is the most nuclear-dependent country in the world, deriving 75 percent of its electricity needs from 58 reactors, most of which were built in response to the oil shocks of the 1970s.

The programme gave birth to a massive state industry, with giants such as the nuclear plant builder Areva and operator EDF as well as the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), which carries out civilian and military research.

But a decades-long “nuclear consensus” gathering all the major parties was badly shaken by the March 11th earthquake that ravaged the Fukushima Daiichi plant in northeastern Japan.

The issue is rising up the political agenda ahead of key elections this year.

In November, the opposition Socialist Party joined with the Greens to campaign for France to scale back its reliance on nuclear to 50 percent by 2025 by shutting 24 reactors and boosting production from wind, solar and other renewable sources.

France will vote in the first round of a presidential election in April and potentially a second round in May, followed by a two-round parliamentary election in June.

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ENERGY

France turns off oldest nuclear plant… but not everyone is happy

France's oldest nuclear plant was switched off on Monday, ending four decades of output that built the local economy but also fuelled cross-border controversy. While environmentalists are happy with the shut down, not everyone is.

France turns off oldest nuclear plant... but not everyone is happy
The Fessenheim nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP

The second and last reactor of the plant at Fessenheim in eastern France went offline at 11pm, said state-owned power company EDF.

Anti-nuclear campaigners in France, Germany and Switzerland – who for years have warned of contamination risks, particularly after the catastrophic meltdown at Fukushima, Japan in 2011 – welcomed the closure.

But for Fessenheim Mayor Claude Brender, closing a plant that is “in good working order and has passed all the security tests” was “absurd and incomprehensible.”

“It's a tough blow for the local economy, that's for sure,” the mayor told BFMTV

'Inhuman'

At the end of 2017, Fessenheim had more than 1,000 employees and service providers on site.

Only 294 people will be needed on site for the fuel removal process until 2023, and about 60 after that for the final disassembly.

It is estimated that shutting down the reactor will put the livelihoods of 2,500 people in the tiny Alsatian community at risk, directly or indirectly.

In Fressenheim, people expressed anger over the decision, fearing for the future of the workers that would lose their jobs.

“What pain, it is inhuman what is happening,” the CGT labour union tweeted as the first switches were flicked.

“We want to die,” they tweeted.

 

The government has said workers will be transferred to other EDF sites. But many would have to leave their families behind.

Safety failures

The reactor in Fessenhaim opened in 1977 and had outlived its projected 40-year life span by three years.

While there is no legal limit on the life span of French nuclear power stations, EDF has envisaged a 40-year ceiling for all second-generation reactors, which use pressurised water technology.

France's ASN nuclear safety authority has said reactors can be operated beyond 40 years only if ambitious safety improvements are undertaken.

In the 1990s and 2000s, several safety failures were reported at Fessenheim, including an electrical fault, cracks in a reactor cover, a chemistry error, water pollution, a fuel leak, and non-lethal radioactive contamination of workers.

In 2007, the same year a Swiss study found that seismic risks in the Alsace region had been underestimated during construction, the ASN denounced a “lack of rigour” in EDF's operation of the plant.

A pro-nuclear energy group protests outside the Greenpeace headquarters in Paris the day France switched off the Fessenheim nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP

.. not done before 2040

Former president Francois Hollande pledged to close Fessenheim – on the Rhine river – but it was not until 2018 that his successor Emmanuel Macron gave the final green light.

The procedure to finally shut down the plant, four months after the first reactor was taken offline, started hours earlier than scheduled, and will be followed in the coming months and years by the site's dismantlement.

After its disconnection from the power grid Monday, it will be months before Fessenheim's reactors have cooled enough for the spent fuel to be removed.

That process should be completed by 2023, but the plant is not expected to be fully dismantled before at least 2040.

12 more closures announced

Without Fessenheim, France will still have 56 pressurised water reactors at 18 nuclear plants  generating around 70 percent of its electricity.

Only the United States, with 98, has more reactors, but France is by far the world's biggest consumer of nuclear energy.

In January, the government said it would shut 12 more reactors nearing or exceeding the 40-year limit by 2035 – when nuclear power should represent just 50 percent of the country's energy mix – in favour of renewable sources.

At the same time, EDF is racing to get its first next-generation reactor running by 2022 – 10 years behind schedule – and more may be in the pipeline.

Future plans under consideration for Fessenheim include turning it into a site for recycling low-level radioactive metal, or a biofuel plant, both promising to bring back hundreds of jobs, but neither expected to materialise for several more years.

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