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NUCLEAR

Job cuts fuel security fears at nuclear plants

Questions have been raised about future security and safety at France's nuclear plants with the country's nuclear energy Areva set to cut thousands of jobs in the industry.

Job cuts fuel security fears at nuclear plants
Protesters break into Fessenheim to demonstrate how lax security is at France's nuclear power stations. Photo: AFP

Unions at French atomic energy giant Areva voiced concern over plant security on Wednesday a day after the company said it
would shed 2,700 French jobs in a two-year major restructuring amid fears that more jobs will go.

Management “are trying to play down” the losses but “there are clearly 4,000 jobs that are to go,” Michel Toudret of France's largest French trade union confederation CFDT told AFP.

The CFDT estimates that, taking into account jobs already shed since the start of this year outside the parameters of the restructuring, the firm was looking at “3,000 to 4,000 departures in France.

Areva group, with 44,000 staff worldwide, is targeting some 6,000 job losses globally, though largely on the basis of a voluntary agreement signed Monday by four of five French unions — the CFDT included.

Toudret said his union would be “very vigilant to see how plants will operate after these departures — what worries us is that those who remain will comprise a reduced staff taking on the same quantity of work” as before the layoffs.

Toudret said he was awaiting details on the future of “sensitive and critical posts” at the majority state-owned group.

Another union leader, Force Ouvriere's Philippe Launay, said it was “out of the question for us (to accept) measures placing in doubt employee security, their environment and installation security.” Launay called on management to ensure that sufficient staff are taken on to cover potential shortfalls, a measure foreseen in Monday's accord.

Pierre-Emmanuel Joly, for the CGT union — the only major union that did not sign up to the deal — said it showed the cuts were too deep and could undermine security.

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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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