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Flamanville EPR: delays, anomalies and lack of manpower… EDF’s cursed site

Cursed site, industrial fiasco, French nuclear nightmare… The qualifiers have been threadbare and the misadventures of the Normandy site are countless. The Flamanville EPR will experience another six-month delay before its commissioning, now scheduled for mid-2024. This new delay announced by EDF, Friday, December 16, is attributed to the necessary revision of treatment procedures for some 150 “complex” welds, within the main secondary circuit of the reactor, explained to the press the director of the Flamanville 3 project, Alain Morvan. It was enough to stop an already fragile machine and interfere with a schedule with very tight margins.

The start-up of this reactor, the first of this generation planned on French soil, will thus take place with a total delay of twelve years compared to the initial planning. This additional period of six months will lead to an additional cost of 500 million euros, adding to an already hefty bill. It will bring the total amount of the Flamanville EPR, whose construction was launched in 2007, to 13.2 billion euros, ie four times the initial budget (3.3 billion euros). While the meters are panicking, the EDF takes care of its communication. The electrician does not speak of a construction site, but rather of a site, for the most part, “in pre-operation”. But the damage is done: the more this site, which employs up to 3,000 people, advances, the more the anomalies multiply.

To understand this slippage, you have to go back in time. In the 1990s, the EPR – an acronym for “European Pressurized Reactor” – was presented as the fruit of Franco-German cooperation. It is designed to revive nuclear energy in Europe in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The presentation of this project, which required a million hours of study, is the opening of the television news of France 3 Alsace in 1995. Three years later, Germany left the project and withdrew from nuclear power, leaving France to pursue these great ambitions alone.

Nearly ten years later, the first stone of the Flamanville project is laid. The duration of construction is estimated at 57 months, see 67, “the pessimistic hypothesis”. Although its last reactor project dates back sixteen years (the Civaux 2 nuclear power plant, completed in 1999), EDF remains confident in its ability to set up a new model. “At the launch of Flamanville, manufacturers boasted of having learned from the Finnish experience”, underlines to L’Express Denis Florin, founding partner of Lavoisier Conseil. In 2003, the company Areva, born two years earlier from the merger of three companies, sold an EPR to Finland for 3 billion euros, which it undertook to build in 48 months. It will be delivered in 2009.

A lack of skilled labor

While Areva (now Orano) is piloting the Finnish project alone, EDF also wants to embark on the construction of a reactor. Two decades after Chernobyl, the issue of security is at the heart of the project. “Anne Lauvergeon (CEO of Areva from 2001 to 2011) praised the EPR by saying that if an airliner falls on it, it will hold on”, rewinds Denis Florin. “The idea was to reduce the probability of core meltdown and therefore of radioactive release into the environment. The EPR took into account all the advances in safety at the global level”, adds Emmanuelle Galichet, teacher- researcher in nuclear physics at Cnam.

At the time, manufacturers did not deny the complexity of the project, but trusted their brilliant engineers. In 2009, poorly completed welds were discovered on the piping crossing the interior metal skin of the reactor building. The quality discrepancies on this point poisoned the lives of the workers on several occasions between 2012 and 2014. In 2017, the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) declared a “non-achievement of the expected high quality requirements”, on welds from the main secondary circuit. Consequences: a hundred of them must be redone. These difficulties are attributed to the retirement of many engineers who built the nuclear program.

“There have been labor issues. Today, in France, we have welders, who have been well trained, but their number is not sufficient. In industry, there is a shortage of 7,000 “, continues Emmanuelle Galichet. A loss of industrial skills is observed in France, the result of a policy of deindustrialization carried out thirty years ago. “Safety requires redundancy. Systems and equipment must be multiplied so that if one does not work, the other takes over”, engages the specialist.

A “rushed” launch

In 2015, manufacturing anomalies were also discovered on the reactor vessel. ASN reveals that Areva informed it of an anomaly relating to the composition of the steel used to manufacture the cover and the EPR tank. New delay. Three years later, another thing: EDF announced that the welding problems encountered on the Manche site would result in a further delay of one year and, as a bonus, a budget overrun of nearly 400 million euros. “These events have slowed down the great momentum initiated three years ago on the site”, recognizes Xavier Ursat, director of new nuclear at EDF. The scenario is similar in 2019.

The shortcomings of the sector on this site have been amply listed in the Folz report, presented in October 2019 to the Minister of the Economy Bruno Le Maire. A few months later, in 2020, the Court of Auditors made its equally severe observation: it criticizes the catastrophic Flamanville site and the inability of the nuclear industry and the State to monitor operations. The sages of rue Cambon denounce a “hasty launch” of these two sites “on the basis of erroneous technical references and insufficient detailed studies”. Indeed, the main construction contracts were concluded when only 10% to 40% of the necessary studies had been completed. In other words, the difficulties of building the EPRs would have been underestimated because of unrealistic projections. “It is likely that the bosses of the time were too ambitious. Perhaps there was a lack of management, a little too far from the realities on the ground”, advances Emmanuelle Galichet. Two years later, construction was again delayed.

The Flamanville dossier also represents a thorn in the side of political decision-makers, who dither on the question of the atom. This may have slowed down investments in this area. “We can blame mistakes on the subject of nuclear power, but that’s all. They cannot have a significant responsibility for the operational management of the project”, insists Denis Florin, adding that it is more a problem of “Management of very large complex projects.” Last February, the Head of State, Emmanuel Macron, announced an about-face on his energy policy. To achieve carbon neutrality, he promises the construction of six EPR2s by 2050, improved models of the Flamanville EPR.

The challenge is not to repeat the same mistakes. “We improved the constructability of this model. We tried not to redo what had not worked. What helped us a lot was the digitization of the processes. Concretely, this made it possible to see the site under our eyes and serve as training”, says Emmanuelle Galichet. The stakes are high for EDF: it is a question of restoring its image on a national and international scale, and of convincing that these disappointments belong to the past. While the war in Ukraine was an opportunity to display national sovereignty thanks to our nuclear fleet, the electrician misses the mark with fifteen reactors shut down out of the 56 in France. And the new delay in Flamanville could accentuate the tensions on the electricity supply in the winter of 2023-2024.


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