France tries to calm reactor concerns

Financial Times: Peggy Hollinger - November 3 2009

France was trying to avert a crisis of confidence on Tuesday over its new-generation EPR nuclear reactor after regulators in three countries raised questions over control and safety systems.

French government officials are expected to contact authorities in the United Arab Emirates in an attempt to assuage concerns as the Gulf state weighs bids in one of the world’s biggest nuclear tenders on offer.

The French companies Areva, designer of the EPR, Total and GDF Suez are among three bidders for a contract to build at least four, and possibly up to six, reactors in the UAE.

One source close to the bidding exercise said the concerns raised this week might have dented France’s image compared with rival US and South Korean bids, although these, too, had experienced problems.

“It hasn’t helped at all – especially as one of the key arguments has been that the EPR is safer than all the others,” said the source.

The EPR, the world’s first third-generation reactor under construction, is leading France’s international drive in the atomic energy sector. Two are being built in Finland and France.

Paris is expected to defend the French offer by arguing that the safety concerns have been expressed as part of the normal process in building a new nuclear reactor. Officials will insist the concerns have become public only because of France’s transparent safety regime.

However, observers said the recent questions voiced by authorities in Britain, Finland and France over the independence of the EPR’s safety system from operational control systems were merely the latest in a series of matters that had been raised in Abu Dhabi.

Both Areva and EDF have found themselves reprimanded in recent months by nuclear safety authorities during the construction process of the EPR. Areva also remains in a fierce battle with its utility client in Finland, where the reactor is at least three years late and several billion euros over budget.

EDF, meanwhile, has been criticised for procedures used in the construction of its reactor at Flamanville, northern France.

Areva insisted on Tuesday that the authorities’ concerns were strictly routine and in no way called into question the safety of the EPR. The UK Health and Safety Authority has said it is confident the issue will be resolved, Areva said.

Both EDF and Areva have said they will present improvements to the control and command system by the end of the year.

Nonetheless, the latest safety concerns have raised a stir, even in France, where popular support for nuclear power – which provides almost 80 per cent of electricity – runs across the political spectrum.

On Tuesday, the opposition Socialists called for a parliamentary inquiry and a national debate on the EPR in light of “serious concerns regarding safety and transparency”.

Officials in Paris suggested the matter had got out of hand, largely because France’s Nuclear Safety Authority – recently made independent of government control – published all letters on its website.