Nuclear safety fears grow as France snubs UK watchdog

France’s slow response to ONR on suspect components raises question for regulator’s interaction with Chinese contractors

Britain’s nuclear watchdog was made to wait more than a fortnight for key files from energy giant EDF confirming that components recently revealed to be suspect had not been used in one of Britain’s largest nuclear power stations.

Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act show that in early May, France’s EDF Group initially rebuffed requests from the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to hand over files about a foundry in France that made specialist parts for EDF’s reactors. The request followed a shock announcement by the foundry’s owner, Areva, on 2 May that quality control reports could have been falsified. The email trail shows the ONR was still making requests for a components list on 18 May, 16 days after the safety fears were first aired.

Dr David Lowry of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies, who obtained the emails, said they raised questions about the regulator’s powers. “ONR has run into so many difficulties in obtaining safety documentation from the French nuclear industry. How will it obtain key documents from the notoriously secretive Chinese nuclear industry, if they get permission to build their own reactors at Bradwell, on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex?”

The UK regulator feared that the suspect Areva components might have been used in the construction of Suffolk’s Sizewell B power station and that others were destined for the proposed Hinkley Point C in Somerset.

Greenpeace France claimed that “the potential falsifications and anomalies” constituted “a major safety risk because the parts involved are large components which are essential to operating the reactors”.

When the concerns emerged, an ONR spokesman said: “ONR is aware of the reports of possible falsification of manufacturing and quality control at Areva’s reactor vessel plant at Le Creusot. We have been in contact with the licensee and are looking into any applicability in the UK.”

But emails suggest that the watchdog struggled to obtain information from the French company’s UK subsidiary, EDF Energy, to enable it to make an urgent safety assessment.

An email from the ONR dated 13 May states: “We have been in contact with EDF Group and while they do have access to the Areva component files, they are not able to release them to EDF Energy.”

The watchdog said EDF had informally advised it that none of the components in Sizewell B posed a safety risk. But, without access to the files, it had to rely on the French firm’s assurances.

The ONR’s chief nuclear inspector wrote in desperation on 18 May to his counterpart at ASN, France’s nuclear watchdog,. “I am concerned that without sight of the full list of implicated components supplied to the UK it is not possible for ONR to independently verify the UK position,” he wrote.

The ONR was left having to ask its French counterpart for a list of the suspect components or to “facilitate Areva sending the list directly to ONR”. It continued: “As you will appreciate, there is significant public interest in the UK and as a respected regulator it is important that we have sight of the source information without which the robustness of our public responses and our safety assurances are diminished.”

EDF Energy insists it was ultimately able to access all the relevant files from its parent company, EDF Group, and shared these with the regulator.

Eventually, in June, EDF stated that it was able to independently confirm that Sizewell B was not affected by issues under investigation at Areva’s Creusot Forge in France. France’s energy minister, Ségolène Royal, said tests confirmed there were no mechanical problems associated with the suspect components.

The regulator’s ability to oversee foreign energy companies operating in the UK has been thrown into sharp relief by the planned £18bn construction of Hinkley Point C, which is awaiting approval from the government.

A spokeswoman said ONR “had no trouble” accessing files it needed in the necessary timescales. As published documents show, we engaged closely with the licensee, but also with Areva and the French regulator, ASN.”She said an independent review had confirmed “no deficiencies were identified”.


Jamie Doward

The GuardianTramp

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