More delays at France’s newest nuclear power site

French electricity firm EDF announced new delays and cost overruns for its troubled new-generation nuclear plant in northern France on Wednesday as the Covid pandemic made the work more difficult.

More delays at France's newest nuclear power site
The Flamanville nuclear plant in northern France Photo: Lou Benoist/AFP

The heavily indebted group said that the plant at Flamanville on the Channel coast would not be loaded with fuel until the “second quarter of 2023”, instead of late 2022.

Projected costs had increased by another €300 million to €12.7 billion – around four times more than the initial forecast of €3.3 billion.

The new schedule and budget take into account “the progress of work and preparations for the start in an industrial context that has been made more difficult by the pandemic,” the state-controlled company said in a statement.

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The group has experienced multiple technical setbacks with the Flamanville plant, with the the national nuclear watchdog identifying problems with welding in 2019 which had to be redone.

The new-generation EPR plant at Flamanville is the only one under construction in France, but three others are in operation around the world: two in China and one in Finland.

EDF was also picked to build a two-reactor plant at Hinkley Point in southwest England in 2016, but this project too has been hit by delays and cost overruns.

Despite objections from some environmentalists, the French government is banking on new nuclear plants to hit its targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The country currently gets the bulk of its electricity – 70 percent – from 56 reactors spread across the country but many of them are coming to the end of their expected lifespans of 40 years.

If the reactor is loaded with fuel in Flamanville in the middle of next year, it would be expected to begin commercial operations around five or six months later.

The government has said a coal plant at Cordemais in western France will be allowed to operate until 2024 until the Flamanville site is brought online.

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France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Firefighting teams and equipment from six EU nations started to arrive in France on Thursday to help battle a spate of wildfires, including a fierce blaze in the parched southwest that has forced thousands to evacuate.

France gets help from EU neighbours as wildfires rage

Most of the country is sweltering under a summer heatwave compounded by a record drought – conditions most experts say will occur more often as a result of rapid climate change.

“We must continue, more than ever, our fight against climate disruption and … adapt to this climate disruption,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said after arriving at a fire command post in the village of Hostens, south of Bordeaux.

The European Commission said four firefighting planes would be sent to France from Greece and Sweden, as well as teams from Austria, Germany, Poland and Romania.

“Our partners are coming to France’s aid against the fires. Thank you to them. European solidarity is at work!” President Emmanuel Macron tweeted.

“Across the country over 10,000 firefighters and security forces are mobilised against the flames… These soldiers of fire are our heroes,” he said.

In total, 361 foreign firefighters were  dispatched to assist their 1,100 French colleagues deployed in the worst-hit part of the French southwest.

A first contingent of 65 German firefighters, followed by their 24 vehicles, arrived Thursday afternoon and were to go into action at dawn Friday, officials said.

Among eight major fires currently raging, the biggest is the Landiras fire in the southwest Gironde department, whose forests and beaches draw huge tourist crowds each summer.

It had already burned 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) in July – the driest month seen in France since 1961 – before being contained, but it continued to smoulder in the region’s tinder-dry pine forests and peat-rich soil.

Since flaring up again Tuesday, which officials suspect may have been caused by arson, it has burned 7,400 hectares, destroyed or damaged 17 homes, and forced 10,000 people to quit their homes, said Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Mendousse of the Gironde fire and rescue service.

Borne said nine firefighting planes are already dumping water on the blaze, with two more to be in service by the weekend.

“We battled all night to stop the fire from spreading, notably to defend the village of Belin-Beliet,” Mendousse told journalists in Hostens.

On several houses nearby, people hung out white sheets saying: “Thank you for saving our homes” and other messages of support for the weary fire battalions.

“You’d think we’re in California, it’s gigantic… And they’re used to forest fires here but we’re being overwhelmed on all sides — nobody could have expected this,” Remy Lahlay, a firefighter deployed near Hostens in the Landes de Gascogne natural park, told AFP.

With temperatures in the region hitting nearly 40C on Thursday and forecast to stay high until at least Sunday, “there is a very serious risk of new outbreaks” for the Landiras fire, the prefecture of the Gironde department said.

Acrid smoke has spread across much of the southwestern Atlantic coast and its beaches that draw huge crowds of tourists each summer, with the regional ARS health agency “strongly” urging people to wear protective face masks.

The smoke also forced the closing of the A63 motorway, a major artery toward Spain, between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

The government has urged employers to allow leaves of absence for volunteer firefighters to help fight the fires.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, more than 1,500 firefighters were also battling a fire that has raged for days in the mountainous Serra da Estrela natural park in the centre of the country.

It has already burned 10,000 hectares, according to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS).