The Times, May 4 2016, 1:01am
Adam Sage, Paris | Robin Pagnamenta, Energy Editor
Plans to build an £18 billion nuclear power station in Somerset were thrown into chaos after the admission that engineers may have falsified vital safety tests. The revelation plunged the French nuclear industry into a new crisis, prompting fears that dozens of reactors in France and possibly the UK could be dangerous. Britain’s nuclear safety regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), said last night that it was seeking answers from EDF, the troubled state-owned electricity company planning to build two European pressurised reactors at Hinkley Point. The ONR said that it was “aware of reports of possible falsification of manufacturing and quality control” at a French state-owned factory that has manufactured key components used in more than half of France’s 58 nuclear reactors. The factory, owned by the collapsed nuclear reactor manufacturer Areva, is due to produce the reactors to be used at Hinkley. “We have been in contact with [EDF] with regard to any applicability to Hinkley Point C,” a spokeswoman said. She added that the ONR was seeking additional information about the possibility that unverified components manufactured at the Areva plant in Le Creusot, Burgundy, may have been installed by EDF at some of the 15 reactors it owns in Britain. A spokeswoman for Areva, a sister company of EDF, acknowledged that there were questions over the safety and reliability of France’s nuclear industry. “Obviously, this is a major issue in terms of confidence,” she said. “We have got our people mobilised to bring transparency here, and we are determined to do that.” Areva admitted on Monday that information on the safety of the reactor pressure vessels it has been making for French nuclear plants since the 1960s is either missing or wrong. Philippe Knoche, Areva chief executive, said that he could not rule out falsification. There have been claims that the errors may have been a deliberate attempt to mislead the French nuclear watchdog, ASN. “We can neither confirm nor exclude potential falsifications,” a spokesman said, amid fears of possible flaws in its practices and quality control. Mycle Schneider, an expert on the French nuclear industry, said that hundreds of large components manufactured at the Le Creusot plant were not properly accounted for. About 50 are believed to be in use inside French nuclear power stations but smaller components could be in reactors owned by EDF in Britain, he said. A similar scandal in Japan in 2005 led to the shutdown of 17 nuclear reactors. “This puts into question the entire chain of quality control and safety inspections in France,” he said. France’s reactors generate almost 80 per cent of the country’s electricity. Areva collapsed last year amid huge debts linked to the botched construction of European pressurised reactors in Finland and Normandy. Documents relating to 10,000 components made in the Le Creusot factory since 1965 are being analysed; so far 400 have revealed anomalies, about half of which relate to nuclear plant parts. A final decision on Hinkley, designed to provide 7 per cent of the UK’s electricity, has been delayed until September amid fears the cost could cripple EDF.