The problems encountered on an EPR in service in China do not fall well for the French energy group EDF, which hopes for new projects for its reactor but also for Chinese industry, say experts.
The American channel CNN reported Monday a possible “leak” in the power station of Taishan, in the south of the country.
EDF, which is a 30% shareholder in the Chinese power station alongside the national group CGN, reported the presence of “rare gases” in the primary circuit of the first reactor, after the degradation of the cladding of a few “rods” containing uranium pellets.
The group was informed in October, but last Saturday the information reached it indicating an increase in gas concentrations.
This problem, against a background of silence from the Chinese authorities, fueled criticism on Monday against the EPR, whose sites in France, Finland and the United Kingdom are marked by delays and additional costs.
“The EPR, put to the test of its functioning, its real security and democracy, is a disaster. Let’s stop these projects!”, Tweeted environmental MEP Yannick Jadot.
“The Chinese nuclear regulator like French companies may have acted in bad faith”, by not immediately making the problem public, said Paul Dorfman, a researcher at University College London (UCL).
“If this is the case, this new debacle for the EPR should have important consequences for any new construction plan for EPR in France, in the United Kingdom and in the world”, according to the expert.
But for Nicolas Mazzucchi, of the Foundation for Strategic Research, “it is far too early to draw any conclusions whatsoever.”
“Is this a question linked to a poor consideration by the (Chinese) safety authority? Is it a problem of a nature that remains to be assessed for the reactor itself ‘For the moment all the questions remain open,’ underlines the researcher.
– Beijing to the challenge
The problem revealed to Taishan comes at a time when EDF, which is currently building only one EPR in France, that of Flamanville (Manche), is hoping for new projects.
France is playing it safe and wants to wait for the start of this site, expected at best for the end of 2022 after many delays, to make a decision.
The decision whether or not to build six additional EPRs will therefore rest with the next five-year period. In the meantime, EDF recently submitted to the government a file on “the feasibility and the conditions” of such a project.
EDF is also discussing with European countries such as Poland or the Czech Republic. The UK, where two EPRs are already under construction, is considering ordering two more. The group is also in discussions with India to install a giant power plant with six EPRs at the Jaitapur site.
With the EPR, EDF competes on the international scene with Russia but also with China, which has developed its own reactor.
However, the credibility of the latter could well be affected by the problem encountered in Taishan, experts believe.
“This is really bad news for the Chinese nuclear industry,” which “could have a very bad international image,” says Nicolas Mazzucchi.
This would suit the United States in passing, in confrontation with the Chinese, and “who have every interest in beating them up when they can do it”, he notes.
The problem in Taishan also questions the future of nuclear power in China, which today has the third largest nuclear fleet in the world.
The development of the atom is important there but remains limited at the scale of the country, a caution linked to the disaster at the Japanese power plant of Fukushima in 2011.
“Partly due to the impact of Fukushima in China, public acceptance of nuclear power in China is volatile,” said Mark Hibbs, nuclear specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The events in Taishan challenge Beijing to explain the facts to its people,” said the expert.