French regulator highlights safety risks at nuclear reactors globally

OCTOBER 16, 2017

Bate Felix

PARIS (Reuters) – Safety levels at nuclear power plants globally are worrying, and although there are no immediate dangers, there are systemic risks that should be dealt with urgently, the head of French nuclear watchdog ASN, said on Monday.

"There are unprecedented safety issues that we did not have 10-15 years ago in the day-to-day operation of a nuclear fleet," Pierre-Frank Chevet said in an interview with BFM Business radio.

He cited issues such as the expected decision to prolong France’s nuclear fleet of 58 reactors beyond their initial 40-year life-span; major investments needed at Japan’s Fukushima, and nuclear power projects that have been delayed by new unforeseen constraints that were not apparent during conception.

In the past few weeks, the regulator has ordered heightened supervision at EDF’s Belleville nuclear plant citing failures in safety standards. It also demanded a temporary halt in production at the Tricastin nuclear power plant due to flaws at a canal dike that could lead to flooding.

Chevet said some cases warranted a serious probe, which was why they were classified as "Level 2" incidents on the international nuclear and radiological event scale (INES), where Level 1 marks the lowest level of risk while Level 7 is the highest.

He said the number of such incidents have been on the rise.

"We use to have between 5 and 10 "level 2" incidents a year. Now we have had three in quick succession in recent weeks, we have to treat them with the required seriousness," he said.

Chevet said this was happening while companies in the sector were facing financial difficulties.

"These discrepancies — trying to manage more with less — is what worries me. This carries risks on its own," Chevet said.

He added that the regulator was still examining requests to extend the lifespan of the French nuclear fleet, and was particular looking at several key factors such as anomalies that have gone undetected over the years.

"Normal wear and tear of the reactors and if they can continue operations is also part of our analysis, as well as if safety at the reactors could be improved to meet new standards following Fukushima," Chevet said.

A spokesman for EDF was not immediately available to comment.

Additional reporting by Dominique Rodriguez. Editing by Jane Merriman

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