Debacle of the French atom

Le prélude à un nouveau Tchernobyl ?

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The results of the 2015 accounts are clear: the two flagship companies of the French atomic industry are on the verge of bankruptcy: Areva(1) is suffering a loss of 2 billion and 6.3 billion in debt for a turnover of 4.2 billion euros; as for EDF(2)37.4 billion for a turnover of 75 billion euros.

This descent into hell is not new: in a few years, both companies have lost nearly 90% in market value (minus 95% for Areva compared to 2011). Moreover, the headlong rush of the French government’s nuclear policy is pushing these two companies to make huge investments for which no provisions have been made: the « grand carénage ». (3) (over 100 billion euros), the controversial project to build two EPR reactors(4) Hinkley Point in England ($18 billion) and the incalculable costs of decommissioning and waste management(5). Not to mention the endless pit of construction of the EPR reactors at Olkiluoto in Finland (7 years behind schedule to date) and Flamanville (4 years behind schedule), the cost of each of these two reactors having risen from €3 billion to €10.5 billion, with no certainty that these projects will ever be completed.

As bad things never come alone, at the end of 2014, Areva finally carried out the tests that had long been requested by the French nuclear safety authority (ASN)(6) on the cover and bottom of the Flamanville EPR vessel: some parts of these two parts have an excessive concentration of carbon, which reduces their mechanical qualities(7) and should lead to a disposal (the tank being already in place, it complicates things…). This carbon concentration cannot exceed the threshold of 0.22% in order to ensure optimal mechanical properties of the steel for safety critical parts and subject to the « failure exclusion » principle(8). No matter, the Flamanville EPR being under construction, this will only have economic consequences, or even the definitive stop of the project (the French taxpayer will have paid more than 10 billion euros for one of these chimeras of which the French State has the secret).

The story doesn’t end there. The ASN, for once well inspired(9), decided to inspect the archives of the Areva plant at Creusot Forge that manufactured the defective EPR vessel. Surprise, irregularities, omissions and falsifications are discovered by hundreds in the quality control documents given to customers. About ten thousand other documents are awaiting in-depth examination, which could take one to two years according to Pierre-Franck Chevet, the president of the ASN, who points out at the same time the lack of resources of his organization.

The first effect of the opening of this Pandora’s box was the immediate or forthcoming shutdown of a dozen French reactors(10) for detailed inspection (we hope), shutdowns that should last several months, or even be definitive, at least if ASN inspectors were given the freedom to make the appropriate decisions The question that arises, given the extent of the fraud, the damage to the entire safety system of the nuclear industry and the extreme consequences of an atomic accident, is the following: why not decide to shut down all 58 French reactors, as well as reactors in other countries whose primary components were supplied by Areva and its subcontractors(11)What are the consequences of this, pending the rigorous examination of all the incriminated manufacturing documents and the non-conforming parts put into service thanks to falsified safety documents?

Is what Japan did after the Fukushima accident, shutting down all of its atomic reactors, beyond the reach of France and the other countries concerned? Of course, there is the obstacle of this quick calculation: at a loss of 1 million euros per day and per reactor, most of which are depreciated, there will be unhappy shareholders. And, in the face of these amounts, the pseudo-independence of the « nuclear watchdogs », the ASN, the AFCN and others, does not carry much weight.

It is the whole question of the validity of atomic power plants that this massive quality control fraud brings to the surface in order to put into service elements that should have been scrapped because they threaten the lives of millions of people.

Without even anticipating these setbacks, the industrialists, financiers and political leaders who made up the military-industrial complex of the 1950s understood that in order to embark on this lucrative and strategic high-risk enterprise, it was imperative to put in place the conditions necessary for its « success »: first, laws and international agreements limiting the civil liability of the operator in the event of a nuclear disaster, which, in Europe, was achieved by the Paris Convention signed by 16 countries in 1960. Secondly, it remained to muzzle the World Health Organization (WHO) which, since an agreement signed in 1959, cannot issue an opinion on the health impacts of the atomic industry without referring to theInternational Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the official lobbying arm of the industry. When will these conventions and agreements be challenged, the AEIA dissolved and truly independent nuclear safety agencies established?

Francis Leboutte, chemical and computer engineer

Article published in the November-December 2016 issue

Note as of February 10, 2017 

Finally, there are 18 reactors whose steam generator steel has an abnormally high carbon content and therefore does not have the properties required by the safety rules; these steam generators, primary components for which a rupture cannot be envisaged (principle of exclusion of rupture), should have been decommissioned from the construction stage because they could not resist high thermal stresses as in the case of an unexpected and sudden shutdown of the reactor (which is not rare, as shown again by the shutdown of the Flamanville reactor n° 1 on February 9, 2017). Against all common sense and to the detriment of all nuclear safety rules, 15 of them have already been restarted: a winter cold wave having passed by as well as the negligence of the ASN helped in this by political pressure. In an EDF brief presented in its defense, we read something that it no doubt missed:  » The shutdown of reactors with defects in cold winter months, when electricity generation needs are increased, would pose serious problems for the security of energy supply « . Clearly, nuclear safety rules are adaptable according to the demand for electricity…

Notes et références
  1. Areva est une multinationale française du secteur de l’énergie, atomique principalement.
  2. EDF : Électricité de France est un des premiers producteurs et fournisseurs d’électricité dans le monde, détenu majoritairement par l’État français, comme Areva.
  3. Grand carénage : projet d’EDF de modernisation et de remplacement de matériels lourds dans les installations atomiques pour poursuivre l’exploitation de ses réacteurs au-delà des 40 ans (1,7 milliard d’euros en moyenne par réacteur, selon la Cour des comptes).
  4. Réacteur EPR : réacteur pressurisé européen dit de « troisième génération », conçu par Areva.
  5. Lire Démantèlement des centrales nucléaires : l’impasse, Francis Leboutte in Kairos n° 22, décembre 2015. Disponible sur
  6. ASN (Autorité de sûreté nucléaire) : l’organisme français qui assure le contrôle de la sûreté nucléaire. L’équivalent de l’AFCN (Agence fédérale de contrôle nucléaire) en Belgique.
  7. Notamment un affaiblissement de la résistance à la fissuration (la ténacité de l’acier).
  8. Principe d’exclusion de rupture : il s’applique aux équipements dont la rupture n’est pas envisageable car les conséquences seraient ingérables et catastrophiques (pièces constitutives de la cuve du réacteur, du générateur de vapeur, du pressuriseur et autres composants primaires d’un réacteur).
  9. Comme son équivalente belge, l’AFCN, financée à 80 % par Engie-Electrabel dont elle est censée être le « gendarme » (lire sur le site web de Greenpeace le communiqué L’AFCN est une filiale d’Engie-Electrabel), la non-indépendance de l’ASN est largement démontrée. Dans un article très fouillé, À Flamanville, l’Autorité de sûreté nucléaire est dans la main d’EDF (18 octobre 2016), la journaliste de Mediapart, Pascale Pascariello, explique comment deux ingénieurs inspecteurs de l’ASN, « chargés du contrôle sur le chantier de l’EPR de Flamanville et dans trois autres centrales en Normandie, ont subi pressions et menaces de leur direction, au profit d’EDF. Et au mépris de la sécurité. »
  10. Si on y ajoute ceux qui sont à l’arrêt pour incident (4) ou pour maintenance ordinaire (une dizaine), c’est plus du tiers des réacteurs français qui sont à l’arrêt ou le seront sous peu. Du jamais vu !
  11. Par exemple, Japan Casting & Forging Corporation qui a fabriqué des fonds primaires de générateur de vapeur atteints des mêmes vices.
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