The story of the crack that hid the rift

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The network « Sortir du nucléaire » is a French network created in 1997 following the victory of a mobilization against the construction of a super nuclear reactor named « Superphénix ». It federates groups, individuals and collectives around the ultimate goal of the denuclearization of France, the most nuclearized country on the planet. Interview with Charlotte Mijeon, network spokesperson.

Kairos. Legal actions, mobilization organization, files and other awareness campaigns are part of the range of your actions. One of the latest campaigns is entitled: « Nuclear: Stop tinkering ». What do you mean by that?

Charlotte Mijeon. We started with the observation that in France — but the phenomenon also occurs in other countries — nuclear power plants are aging. Half of them are over thirty years old, the age for which they were originally designed, and some are getting closer and closer to forty. However, what we know is that over time various problems occur that are directly related to the inexorable wear of materials, knowing that some components, such as the tank, cannot be replaced. Some components, such as buried cables, are subject to wear and tear that cannot be measured; others could be replaced but the parts are no longer available.

The other problem to be considered in parallel is that of the ageing of EDF and maintenance personnel. So we find ourselves with aging reactors, on which major work is potentially required even though the people most qualified to do it are going to retire.

This so-called tinkering is also linked to what is called the « major refurbishment » program, the objective of which is to extend the operating life of nuclear power plants beyond forty years in France — up to fifty years, or even sixty years if we are to believe EDF’s intention. This program is supposed to affect the entire fleet — 58 reactors in France — and is estimated, according to EDF, at 55 billion euros (other estimates, including those of Greenpeace, show that it would be hundreds of billions of euros). Faced with the magnitude of this work and the insane cost that it represents in relation to what we are able to do — given the wear and tear of the materials and the non-replacement of certain elements — we see that the only way to act is to act at the margin, to patch things up. For example, a reactor vessel cannot be replaced in France, even if it has cracks or other similar problems. There are elements — the concrete enclosure, the buried cables — that cannot be replaced. This is why we consider that a nuclear power plant is not like a car that passes the technical inspection and can be driven away. There is a real problem with limits, material wear and tear and obsolescence.

Even after this tinkering, the plants cannot be declared safer because some components could not be replaced. In addition, some of the work is extremely heavy, unprecedented and, in the current state of subcontracting management in France, risks doing worse than better. We are therefore faced with potential works that are supposed to improve safety and that, in the end, may lead to a degradation. Beyond that, we know, according to the French nuclear safety agency, that EDF is unable to carry out all the maintenance work it has set for itself, and that about a third of the problems in nuclear power plants are related to incomplete maintenance. If regular maintenance already suffers from such problems, one can imagine the magnitude of the difficulties, and therefore the risks, in the context of unprecedented work.

What we also fear with this so-called « major refurbishment » program is that it will result in great carnage for the workers in charge of it, with, in particular, massive recourse to subcontractors who are poorly trained and unaware of the challenges of radiation protection and the dangerous nature of the reactors. Knowing that there is a risk of having construction sites, and other unprecedented operations, concomitant with unprecedented operations that will mobilize a huge number of people at a time when, as has been said, a large part of the EDF workforce and qualified subcontractors are retiring.

The map published on your site shows that many French reactors are over thirty years old. How are the first major repair operations being carried out?

Work has already been carried out, initially on the Fessenheim power plant, which is a typical example of extremely heavy work that, in the end, will not prevent an accident. Fessenheim is characterized in particular by the presence of a ravel — a concrete base under the power plant — which is particularly thin and on which work has been carried out to add an additional protective layer. Knowing that neither the tank nor the reactor could be moved, they managed to dig a bypass channel. However, on the one hand, we cannot be sure that this will not weaken certain elements and, on the other hand, it will only make it possible to gain about forty-eight hours before the molten fuel reaches the water table in the event of accidents.

« There is something of the order of a headlong rush, of the impossibility of thinking outside nuclear power, both for EDF and for our leaders in charge of the country’s energy policy.

At the end of June/beginning of July, we also experienced incidents that could have gone very badly wrong and that are directly linked to poorly done maintenance, particularly in the context of work carried out a few weeks apart and intended to extend the life of the power plants. At the Blayais nuclear power plant in Gironde, an incident occurred that could have been prevented if procedures and working hours had been respected. In this case, a cutting of materials — irradiated in all cases — created radioactive dust which, following a problem with the tightness of a containment airlock, spread, contaminating several people present. This has happened twice in a row. Within a few weeks of each other, at the Paluel nuclear power plant in Seine-Maritime, an operation in the engine room led to a titanium fire in a safety-relevant crate, which took more than six hours to bring under control.

These are typical examples of work that is normally carried out to improve safety but which is done in haste to limit the plant’s downtime, with the result that lives are endangered, personnel are irradiated and the work carried out is unreliable. We see this as a real problem.

Turning to the Belgian situation, the news of the atom was marked, some time ago, by the cracks detected in two reactors, Doel 3 and Tihange 2. Can we consider that these detections are the result of an improvement in the accuracy of the measuring instruments, or is it a sign of wear and tear on the vessel that heralds the deterioration of other reactors?

I would lean more towards the second option. It is important to know that in France, an extensive control was refused on the pretext that it was not the same reactor model. However, it is quite possible that we are facing the same type of serious defects. We already know that some power plants, such as Gravelines and Tricastin, also have problems with cracks. Moreover, in Belgium, the situation is being downplayed: we are talking about micro-cracks, even though they are quite large (up to 18 centimeters in Doel and 15 in Tihange for the largest ones, editor’s note).

So indeed, the detections are most certainly related to the issue of material wear. It is important to know that the bombardment of neutrons due to the normal operation of a nuclear reactor has an impact on the solidity of a vessel as well as on its vulnerability to the shock of temperatures and their variations. So it’s not just that we’re better at detecting cracks, but the issue of wear is central. In France, the thermometer has been broken to avoid this kind of defects, that is to say that some devices that allowed to measure the wear of materials have been removed.

To return to the question of personnel, we experienced a technical incident at Tihange during the month of August, about which very little information has filtered out, other than that a reactor stopped in the middle of the night, with the announcement that it would be restarted a few days later, only to have it restarted at the end of August. Officially, there is talk of a maintenance problem, and we were treated to a statement by the head of the Federal Nuclear Control Agency (FANC) calling for a strengthening of the « safety culture » at the Tihange plant. Is this a way of admitting the problem of non-renewal of staff and therefore the lack of skills that you mentioned earlier?

There are in fact several points that come into play: both a problem of skills — there are many people whose job it is but there are also those who are insufficiently trained — and therefore a problem of non-transmission of these skills. And we are not talking about skills that are academic but rather empirical. For example, theSortir du Nucléaire network took legal action against a nuclear power plant where there had been a hydrofluoric acid leak and where it was found that the damaged pipe was not checked because it was not shown on the plan. In these cases, we are dependent, at the level of safety, on people, on professionals who have empirical and historical knowledge of the installations; « nuclear nomads » who arrive on a site without knowing it, or even engineers who are appointed and have theoretical training, cannot be aware of what is not on the plans or of the places likely to leak at a given time.

This is one of the issues that is becoming more and more critical as the professionals who know the facilities retire. However, it is stressed that not everything should be blamed on the people who intervene in nuclear power plants, simply because they do not have the means to do their work properly: the duration of interventions is gradually being reduced — certainly at EDF — and some interventions that used to take a month and a half are now carried out in three weeks — because one day of reactor shutdown corresponds to a loss of revenue of one million euros.In addition to the fact that these operations are carried out in a hurry, there are no longer systematic verifications but spot checks. The working conditions are extremely difficult, especially for nomadic workers, who move from site to site, have to sleep in campsites and live in quite stressful conditions. The Belgian director Alain de Halleux described this situation perfectly in his documentary  » R.A.S. nucléaire, rien à signaler « .

It may be naive, but I still have a rather fundamental question: while the investments for the extension of the power plants represent between 55 and 250 billion euros in France; that in Belgium at the time of the announcement of the extension of the oldest reactors, we find ourselves with only two reactors in working order out of seven following a still enigmatic sabotage; of two cracked tanks and of repeated incidents… how to understand that Belgium, France and other countries are still positioning themselves for an extension of the life of the nuclear power plants ?

Good question. Clearly, EDF is hiding the reality of its investments. I think that EDF also knows that not all of its plants can be extended, but continues to organize itself to ensure the extension of those it wants. Clearly, there is something of a headlong rush, of the impossibility of thinking outside nuclear power, both for EDF and for our leaders in charge of the country’s energy policy — which is largely delegated to EDF.

In France, there is an energy transition law that provides for a reduction in the share of nuclear power, but at the moment there is no indication that any reactors will be closed: there is nothing in the law that provides for the closure of the oldest reactors. Even for the closure of Fessenheim, the State is holding back from EDF. We notice that before, if the law stipulated to cap nuclear production so that a new reactor could not be put into service without closing an old one, today we observe a new reversal. Ségolène Royal (French Minister of Energy) announced that the closure of Fessenheim would have to wait until the EPR in Flamanville came into service. Thus, this threshold has gone from being a ceiling to a sort of floor, even though the stated goal of the law is to reduce the share of nuclear power. What we see here is truly an impossibility, a refusal to think that reactors can be closed. This headlong rush is extremely dangerous, both in terms of safety and in terms of energy and financial supply. In any case, we will be faced with problems with power plants that we will not be able to extend indefinitely, with more frequent and longer than expected breakdowns, or even definitive breakdowns, and in France, nothing will have been planned to ensure that renewable energies take over and that the decrease in energy consumption is sufficient.

Before closing this interview, would you like to add one last thing?

To complete the question of the headlong rush, it should be added that EDF is not capable of thinking differently and remains in a very short-term logic, that the shutdown of reactors represents a loss of earnings that can be counted in millions of euros and that we are in a system which, with the problem of waste management, makes EDF dependent on continuing to operate its power plants for a longer period of time if it wishes to make sufficient provisions to ensure such management.

What does that mean?

Well, EDF has not made sufficient provisions for waste and is therefore in a rather crazy situation where, in order to be able to collect the necessary sums, it has to make bonuses, which means that the reactors continue to produce. This means that more waste will have been produced during this time. This is not the only argument that explains the desire to extend the life of the plants at all costs, but it may be one of the factors that come into play.

The snake is biting its own tail and the final bill could be extremely high. EDF is now heavily indebted and this financial malaise is not reassuring as to its ability to process waste. The financial burden is therefore likely to fall on the population.

Interview by Nicolas Bras

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