Problems plague French design for Britain’s nuclear future

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In the port of Flamanville on the coast of north western France, sits an almost completed new design of nuclear reactor due to open a decade ago.  

Fuel-loading at Flamanville 3 was pushed back by another six months on Wednesday to the end of 2023, said French state-owned parent EDF who blamed the pandemic. The project will now cost €300m more than forecast at an estimated €12.7bn. 

Across the world in Guangdong, China, inspections at a plant in Taishan, run by state-owned CGN with EDF, and using the same technology, showed “mechanical wear of certain assembly components”. Another of its plants, Olkiluoto in Finland, is due to come online later this month after many delays. 

While these may seem foreign problems, EDF is the UK’s leading nuclear developer and in charge of building Hinkley Point C in Somerset as well as the planned Sizewell C in Suffolk – both will also be based on the new designs, in the move away from ageing power plants.

It has also reopened the debate over the expense and safety of nuclear power stations, putting a nuclear renaissance at risk. As global demand for green energy rises – amid soaring natural gas prices due to shortages and pressure to cut the use of carbon-based fuels – rival technologies are being developed at pace.  

Flamanville’s delayed reactor – which would add to France’s 56 existing nuclear reactors that have helped to largely decarbonise its electricity supply – uses an EPR design: a modern variant of a pressurised water reactor (PWR). This design has extra safety features added in light of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, which claimed hundreds of lives after being triggered by an earthquake.

“Most reactors around the world are pressurised water reactors,” says Dr Michael Bluck, director of the Centre for nuclear engineering at Imperial College London. “It’s extremely well-established, well-understood technology.”

The only EPR design currently up and running is in Taishan, opened in 2018, which has temporarily closed one of the reactors due to problems with the fuel rods. 

While technical delays have set EDF’s projects back, concerning some watchers, Bluck argues that learning about the design and problems at Flamanville could help speed up the process for British reactors.

“When you look at things like Flamanville and the reactor in Finland, it doesn’t tell you a good story plainly,” he says, adding that there is “an awful lot of saving time by learning”.

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