By Nina Chestney and Susanna Twidale
Reuters, London, Sun Aug 17, 2014 9:33am BST
Europe’s ageing nuclear fleet will undergo more prolonged outages over the next few years, reducing the reliability of power supply and costing plant operators many millions of dollars.
Nuclear power provides about a third of the European Union’s electricity generation, but the 28-nation bloc’s 131 reactors are well past their prime, with an average age of 30 years.
And the energy companies, already feeling the pinch from falling energy prices and weak demand, want to extend the life of their plants into the 2020s, to put off the drain of funding new builds.
Closing the older nuclear plants is not an option for many EU countries, which are facing an energy capacity crunch as other types of plant are being closed or mothballed because they can’t cover their operating costs, or to meet stricter environmental regulation.
Though renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power are slowly rising in the mix, they do not produce a constant output, so other sources will always be needed for backup.
But as nuclear plants age, performance can suffer, and outages - both scheduled and unplanned - rise.
With nuclear safety in the spotlight since the 2011 reactor meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima plant - which in turn prompted Germany to call time on its entire nuclear fleet - operators can take no chances with their elderly plants, but the outages get longer and more difficult.
"These reactors were designed over 30 years ago. The people involved are either retired or dead, and most of the companies involved no longer exist," said John Large, an independent nuclear engineer and analyst who has carried out work for Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority.
Jean Tandonnet, EDF Group’s nuclear safety inspector, said in January that its French fleet last year had a series of "problematic unit outages", and scheduled outages were extended by an average of more than 26 days. Regular maintenance and major equipment replacement jobs had increased by 60 percent in the last six years, he said.
"(At an ageing plant) outages take slightly longer, and there is more work to do to make sure it is in top condition. Safety comes ahead of anything else," a spokeswoman for EDF Energy in the UK said.
France is the EU’s nuclear leader, its 58 reactors producing nearly three quarters of the country’s electricity. France’s nuclear watchdog will make a final decision on whether to extend the life of the French fleet to 50 years in 2018 or 2019. EDF has estimated the extension would cost 55 billion euros.
"The average age of the (French) reactors is now about 30 years, which raises questions about the investment needed to enable them to continue operating, as ageing reactors increasingly need parts to be replaced," according to the World Nuclear Industry Status report 2014.
Though the EU has conducted risk and safety tests on the bloc’s nuclear plants, environmental campaigners say the tests failed to address risks associated with ageing technology, among other things.
With exposure to radiation, high temperatures and pressure, the components of nuclear plants take a battering over time.
"They can, for example, become more brittle, susceptible to cracking or less able to cope with temperature extremes," said Anthony Froggatt, senior research fellow at London-based thinktank Chatham House.
"While this can be monitored, it can be problematic if ageing occurs at a greater rate than anticipated or it occurs in areas which are difficult to access or monitor," he added.
As reactors age, there is also a risk of finding a generic design flaw that could affect all the reactors in a country if they are of the same design.
The Gulf Times (Qatar): The cost of caring for elderly nuclear reactors in Europe, 18 August 2014
EurActiv (Belgium): The cost of caring for Europe’s elderly nuclear plants, 18 August 2014