France debates potential nuclear closures

The head of the French nuclear regulatory agency, Pierre-Franck Chevet, has warned that the country faces the possibility of a large proportion of its nuclear fleet being shut down by the end of this decade.

Mr Chavet, speaking on behalf of Autorite de Surete Nucleaire at a debate on the issue in parliament on Tuesday, said safety standards will be tougher for 40-year-old French reactors as they undergo their once-a-decade in-depth regulatory probes, adding that operating reactors beyond four decades “is not at all a given. Safety is a prerequisite of energy policy.”

The regulator is currently carrying out the in-depth inspections on the plants and it leaves open the possibility of up to a dozen reactors being closed by 2020, when they reach the end of their lifespans.

It has implications for French energy security with 75 per cent of the country’s electricity being generated by the nuclear sector. President Hollande wants to reduce that proportion of the energy mix to 50 per cent, replacing it with renewable energy, by 2025.

EDF Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Henri Proglio has said the utility wants to extend the lives of its reactors for as long as six decades.

More than half of the reactors in the US have been relicensed to operate an additional 20 years beyond their original 40-year lifespan.

Proglio

Mr Proglio used the forum to warn of increased costs and a loss of competitiveness if the country shifts away from nuclear power. During peak demand periods French output is already stretched, he said.

In gauging safety capability Autorite de Surete Nucleaire officials are set to focus on the storage of spent atomic fuel rods. EDF normally stores the rods in water tanks but following the events at Fukushima the regulator is looking to step up this aspect of safety.

“Significant safety improvements have to be made,” Thomas Houdre, director of reactors at said in an interview, making the regulator’s strongest comments on the issue so far. “There is no way of managing an accident in a spent-fuel pool. We want the possibility of this happening to be practically eliminated.”

Proposed measures to improve safety include more water supplies, better power supplies, more stored water and improved external protection, he said, adding that, “Existing pools have some deficiencies compared with third-generation reactors.”

EDF is already facing $74bn of spending through 2025 on safety and life extensions. Revising fuel-cooling systems would add to the bill.

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