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The French connection: NRC refuses to out reactors linked to supplier scandal

The emergency shutdown of 12 French nuclear reactors over the discovery of defective parts has raised safety concerns over parts supplied to U.S. nuclear plants, but U.S. regulators so far are denying requests to take similar measures or even name the plants possibly affected.

An anti-nuclear activist group, Beyond Nuclear, has filed an emergency petition and freedom of information request with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to release the names of reactors with flawed parts supplied by a French forge and to shut down those affected.

Beyond Nuclear filed the requests as French regulators took 12 of the country’s 58 reactors temporarily offline for the winter to run safety checkups. The French regulators took the extraordinary measure following the discovery of excessive carbon in the steel pressure vessel of a plant under construction and revelations of possible falsification of manufacturing records stretching back decades by the Le Creusot forge. The Le Creusot facility was acquired in 2006 by government-owned French nuclear giant AREVA S.A. Excess carbon, or "carbon segregation," can weaken steel to the point of cracking and can lead to a reactor meltdown.

"It is unacceptable that the NRC refuses to divulge the names of U.S. reactors with potentially defective parts from the Le Creusot forge," said Paul Gunter, director of reactor oversight at Beyond Nuclear, in a news release. "The failure of these parts could have catastrophic and long-lasting consequences with a high price not only in costs but in human health."

AREVA is auditing the forge’s records for about 6,000 nuclear reactor parts in parallel to an investigation by French nuclear energy regulators. Besides reactor pressure vessels, other possibly faulty parts manufactured at the forge and sold around the world include replacement lids for reactor vessels, steam generators and pressurizers.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that an NRC investigation found that nine U.S. reactors use large components produced from the Le Creusot forge but refuse to publicly disclose them. A June report by Greenpeace France suggested that at least 19 reactors at 11 nuclear plants in the U.S. are operating with the potentially defective parts. There are 99 commercial reactors operating in the U.S. at 62 nuclear power plants.

David McIntyre, a spokesperson with the NRC, said in a statement that there are no indications of safety concerns for any U.S. plants at this time and, thus, no need for the federal agency to take immediate action. However, the NRC is following its French counterpart’s investigations and is in contact with AREVA as well, he said.

"Should the inquiry reveal any safety concerns, the NRC would take appropriate measures," said McIntyre, who added that, for proprietary reasons, the agency will not release any additional information at this time.

Local investigations by Reuters and Minneapolis' Star Tribune newspaper have so far only identified Unit 2 of Dominion Resources Inc.’s Millstone station in Connecticut and Xcel Energy Inc.’s two reactors at the Prairie Island plant in Minnesota as containing pressure vessels from the Le Creusot forge.

Ken Holt, a spokesman with Dominion, said in an interview that the Millstone nuclear plant operator is confident that the pressurizer, which was installed in 2006, presents no safety issues. However, Holt said Dominion is reviewing its documentation and is in contact with AREVA, as the part underwent an extra heat treatment, unbeknownst to Dominion, when it was produced.

Randy Fordice, a spokesperson with Xcel, said in a statement that after months of investigation and cooperation with the Nuclear Energy Institute and technical experts, the company has concluded that their plants, including Prairie Island, are safe and unaffected by any safety concerns raised in France. Fordice said some of the reactor vessel components at Prairie Island were made at Le Creusot in the early 1970s, but rigorous testing and inspections by the NRC over the past 40 years have identified no issues.