French nuclear whistleblowers report suspected fraud

Materials World magazine
30 May 2019

A French nuclear watchdog has received reports of suspected fraud in the country’s nuclear operators.

More than 20 reports of concerns over foul practice have been reported to France’s nuclear industry regulator in the past six months. Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN) opened a public portal in November 2018 to collect reports of irregularities relating to nuclear safety and radiation protection for people and the environment.

An ASN statement on 17 May 2019 said in that time the body had received 22 submissions, some of which related to potential fraud and are subject to investigation by the organisation. Four have already been forwarded to the public prosecutor for further review. The statement said the concerns expressed related to areas including basic nuclear installations, medical activities and approved organisations. Other issues reported included inappropriate material use, checks not being performed, and activities such as welding and non-destructive testing being performed by unqualified people and controls being carried out by internal organisations.

Adulterated test results, falsified identities of technical inspectors, weldings and non-destructive examinations, and failure to carry out certain operations including replacing parts or specific technical checks, were also among the issues raised. ASN said more details about these accusations could not be revealed due to judicial confidentiality.

‘ASN considers that inspection is a means of reducing the risk of fraud by making the person perpetrating the fraud aware of the fact that their actions can be detected and punished,’ the statement read.

Chatham House Energy, Environment and Resource Governance Senior Research Fellow, Antony Froggatt, told Materials World, ‘Equipment failure and replacement are continually occurring and as the reactors get older, so their maintenance periods are extending – these are normally called outages. As an indication of this, nuclear plants provided 71.6% of electricity generation in France in 2018, the lowest share since 1988. This is a decline for the fourth year in a row and 7% below the peak year of 2005 (78.5%). The total number of zero output days of the French reactor fleet exceeded 5,000 days in 2018.

‘The key issue is that as the French fleet gets older, then age-related problems will affect the operational time of the reactors and more components need to be checked and replaced. This is an issue for all reactors, but is particularly significant for France as it built its reactors now average 34 years old, and the vast majority were built in a 15 year period – therefore you have a lot reactors with age related issues that need to be addressed.’

Future plans

France is an exporter of electricity to its neighbours, which includes Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, the UK and Switzerland. Last November, President Emmanuel Macron said France would close 14 of its nuclear reactors currently operating by 2035, with up to six closed by 2030. France has 58 nuclear reactors, all of which are managed by EDF and, according to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), have a combined capacity of 63.1GW electrical output.

‘France’s present electricity generation mix is a result of the French government deciding in 1974, just after the first oil shock, to expand rapidly the country’s nuclear power capacity, using Westinghouse technology. This decision was taken in the context of France having substantial heavy engineering expertise but few known indigenous energy resources. Nuclear energy, with the fuel cost being a relatively small part of the overall cost, made good sense in minimising imports and achieving greater energy security,’ WNA said.