What the Fukushima were they thinking of?

Written By: Chris Myant
Published: March 24, 2017 Last modified: March 30, 2017

We heard that Hinkley Point is going to get a vast construction site that will drain resources for a decade and offer no certainty of success at the end of it, just as Solar Impulse completed its global tour, showing what is possible if we use a bit of sense, some frontier technology and set out to build a different energy future. That had to tell us something about what the sensible choices should be when it comes to nuclear power.

There’s the fact that Britain’s only recorded tsunami – in 1607 – wiped out what little existed of Cardiff in those days. On the other side of the Bristol Channel, a high water mark was chiselled onto the stonework of All Saints Church at Kingston Seymour, just up the Somerset coast from Hinkley Point. If you ever get to look at it, you may find yourself hoping that the small headland on which the Hinkley reactor is to be based is high enough to ride out any conceivable tidal surge.

Then there’s the argument over Hinkley on the French side of the Channel. The French authorities who dreamed up the new European Pressurised Water Reactor, or EPR, hope Hinkley will be third time lucky. At Olkiluoto in Finland, their first attempt is still not completed despite a decade of work. The second at Flamanville in Normandy is mired in scandals over the lousy, indeed fatal, employment practices of subcontractors and serious question marks hang over the viability of the steelwork for the reactor.

EDF, the majority state-owned electricity generator, and Areva, the majority state-owned nuclear power station constructor, are the key players in the EPR gambit that the French establishment hopes will maintain its world role in nuclear power. They are far from the only semi-state corporations that seem more interested in wandering the world rather than resolving deep-seated issue of under-investment and lop-side policy decisions at home.

In Bath to see the splendid and wonderfully cleaned fan vaulting in the abbey ceiling this last August, I unthinkingly stepped out in front of a double-decker red bus. As the driver hooted, I saw that the symbol on its front was “RATP”. The Régie Autonome des Transports de Paris is the public company that runs the French capital’s Métro and its buses. Bath is just one feather in its cap: RATP is running transport projects in 20 cities outside France.

Back at the end of the 1970s when, in what seems like an entirely different existence, I was a member of the Communist Party’s political committee, the comrades assigned to me the task of preparing an energy policy for the party. It was not at all an irrelevance in those days and it meant discussions with high-powered thinkers, experts and trade unionists.

Fully persuaded that nuclear power was not a viable option, my argument then was that if the finance, effort and technological resources devoted to it were switched to alternative forms of energy generation, to more efficient uses of energy and to ways of achieving what we want in our modern lifestyles without using expensive, non-renewable forms of energy, then the future could look very different.

Everything that has happened in the energy field since, seems to me to confirm that argument. The most important point is the incredible pace of technological advance. Seriously strict public regulation, whether in terms of planning controls or those on environmental impacts, combined with the use of Hinkley’s billions for research, development and construction of alternative energy projects and the results could be exciting.

The certainty is that they would be better than a construction site with ballooning costs, unpredictable decommissioning expenses, and 40 years of worry over accidents. Four decades unless, like President Hollande, one chooses to ignore manifesto and environmental commitments and prolong the life of the reactors ad infinitum, as he has left open the possibility of doing with Fessenheim, the French nuclear power station that sits on
the Rhine.

Closing Fessenheim down was one of Hollande’s many promises back in 2012. Its two reactors are the oldest in France’s total of 58. When French ministers were celebrating the ‘success’ of the Paris COP21 climate conference, retiring Fessenheim still seemed to be on the cards. Now, we can only be certain it will happen if the Nuclear Safety Authority or ASN forces the Paris government’s hand.

Instead of ordering closure now, Hollande gave EDF 490 million Euros to help it cope with Fessenheim costs, left the final decision on shut-down to the next President and gave EDF the right to open up a retired reactor at Paluel at sea level on the Normandy coast.

Two days before EDF confirmed its Hinkley project, the ASN had ordered the closedown of Fessenheim’s number 2 reactor over safety concerns. Because of ASN orders a third of French reactors have been closed for detailed checks this winter. Ironically, those concerns arose because the ASN ordered Areva to do a safety audit of the reactor construction records at its Le Creusot works in Burgundy after the problems with the steel for the Flamanville EPR had been revealed. Decades of documents have been scrutinised over the past nine months, with the discovery that they report defects in much of the steel it forged, reports that were quietly filed away. Because it systematically diced with safety in this way, the works are closed, at least until the coming summer, on ASN orders.

Of course, an accident is highly unlikely. It is just that the consequences of a serious one in France are unthinkable. Forget for a moment the nightmare of a disaster at Fessenheim closing down life along the Rhine all the way to the North Sea. Take my bête noire, Tricastin, said to be the largest nuclear complex in Europe.

Like most French nuclear stations it is on a river: we see it across the Rhone somewhat north of Avignon while on the Autoroute du Soleil on our way to or from the Côte d’Azur. The vast site includes a four-reactor power station run by EDF and a processing centre run by Areva. The concrete-domed containers for each of the reactors sit in a line like vast pepper pots out in the sun slowly mouldering, though obviously safely mouldering, 500 yards from the motorway.

As the traffic always seems to slow almost to a jam as we approach this point, there is time to study the panorama and wonder what disaster plan the authorities might have ready. Given that disaster planning is not these days a great strength of the French authorities (remember those blocks of concrete someone forgot to put in place at the entrance to Nice’s Promenade des Anglais on 14 July just before 86 people were killed?), such reflections may not comfort those in the ancient villages of Somerset.

Look at the map, consider a serious accident, and think what dancing might take place on that infamous Avignon bridge. Or put yourself in the shoes of a resident of the swathes of dense and desperate social housing that are home to the majority of the inhabitants of Marseilles, just beside the Rhone estuary.

France is the world’s biggest net exporter of electricity, thanks to its huge nuclear capacity. EDF wants to keep it that way. It aims, with government support, to extend the life cycle of its current plants to 60 years through a “grand carénage” – a great careening – of all its reactors as well as selling the new EPR worldwide. At the same time, Hollande wants to keep in people’s minds the image of a France that hosted the COP21 and that, to help make the conference a success, voted in a law pledging to dramatically slash the nuclear percentage in its power output. The decision to run with Fessenheim shows the choice Paris is actually making.

The unions have been on strike in support of keeping the Fessenheim in being. Yet on Hinkley Point, their argument is different. There have been four one-day strikes this year over pay and over job cuts. A majority of the unions do not want EDF to risk all its financial future by chancing billions on the drawing board promise of the EPR. Leading figures in the EDF management structure walked and the final vote in favour of Hinkley on its board was narrow. Union delegates said the Hinkley Point project could bust EDF but were refused full budget figures.

With nuclear power, costs are exactly what you want them to be. EDF wants them low, so largely ignores the costs of decommissioning. In February, a special parliamentary report on a decommissioning strategy said EDF’s approach consisted of hoping it could prolong the life of its reactors for decades in contradiction to the COP 21 commitments. “The future stakes are colossal, as much from the health and safety point of view as from that of the costs,” the MPs warned.

Sailing into Dieppe last week, I thought I could make out Paluel to the right and another, Penly, also at sea level much closer to the left, just as the radio told me that both traditional reactors at Flamanville were shut after accidents.

We are not to worry too much for the moment. A spokesperson for the ASN explained that, though there are “anomalies” in the EPR steel at Flamanville, “the EPR is not in service and so does not represent a risk”. But, what ever you do, avoid looking at the photo of Paluel if you do not want to start asking what the Fukushima French nuclear planners were thinking of when they put it there. At least, if it gets built, Hinkley will be on a bit of a hump.