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French Nuclear Model Falters via The New York Times

PARIS — For decades, France has been a living laboratory for atomic energy, getting nearly three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear power — a higher proportion by far than in any other country.

And France’s nuclear companies have long been seen as leaders in building and safely operating uranium-fueled reactors around the world — including in the United States — and championed by Paris as star exporters and ambassadors of French technological prowess.

But in the last few years, the French dynamo has started to stall. New plants that were meant to showcase the industry’s most advanced technology are years behind schedule and billions of euros over budget. Worse, recently discovered problems at one site have raised new doubts about when, or even if, they will be completed.

This is not France’s problem alone, but a challenge to the entire energy-consuming world. As worries mount about the dangers fossil fuels pose to the global climate, many countries still see atomic power as a path to clean energy, despite the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

[…]

On Wednesday, China National Nuclear Corporation told reporters in Beijing that it would be interested in making a financial investment in Areva. The French company responded in a statement that same day that “we are happy that CNNC is ready to strengthen its cooperation with Areva.”

CNNC and another company with which Areva and Électricité de France have long worked, China General Nuclear Power Corporation, have previously signed letters of intent to participate in a big project in which the French companies are poised to play a leading role. That project, planned for Hinkley Point, England, has won British government approval as the country’s first new nuclear plant in decades.

But the stumbles elsewhere by Areva and Électricité de France — better known as EDF — have raised troubling questions about the viability and cost of the Hinkley Point plant. And while Prime Minister David Cameron has courted the Chinese, other British officials have raised security questions about involving state-backed Chinese companies.

[…]

A big part of the problem, though, appears to be a bet the French nuclear establishment made more than a decade ago on a new generation of reactors. The French promised that those power plants — based on a technology called E.P.R., for European pressurized reactor — would be the safest and most powerful commercial reactors ever built.

[…]

More bad news came recently. On April 7, the French nuclear regulator, the Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire, announced that imperfections had been discovered in the steel that Areva used to make the top and bottom caps of the main reactor vessel at the plant under construction in Flamanville.

Pierre-Franck Chevet, president of the nuclear regulator, has described the defects as “serious — even very serious.”

The reactor vessel is a crucial part of an atomic plant — the housing meant to contain the extreme heat, pressure and radiation produced by the nuclear fission that occurs inside. The steel used for key parts of the Flamanville vessel was made at the Areva forge in Le Creusot, France. An analysis by the company found an unacceptably high level of carbon –— impurities that could threaten the steel’s structural integrity.

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