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French nuclear power plants must improve fire safety measures: regulator


The dangers presented by fires at French nuclear power stations must be "taken very seriously" after a report showed there were around 100 fire incidents at nuclear sites in 2011, Jean-Christophe Niel, managing director of national nuclear safety regulator ASN, said in an interview published Wednesday.

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Earlier this month, ASN published a report which said that around 40% of the 100 fire incidents reported in 2011 at French nuclear sites -- which includes power plants as well as fuel reprocessing and research sites -- were caused by electrical faults.

"Out of the hundred fire incidents in 2011, around 10 were considered significant in terms of nuclear safety," Jean-Christophe Niel told Le Parisien newspaper in an interview.

State-controlled power firm EDF operates all 58 of France's nuclear power reactors, which typically provide around three-quarters of the nation's power.

EDF estimates that some Eur55 billion ($73.5 billion) of investment is required to extend the lifespans of its entire fleet for a further 10 years, including around Eur10 billion to cover further safety demands from the ASN following the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

Fires are a particular concern for nuclear power plants as they can can damage generators used for shutdown procedures as well as lead to emissions of radioactive substances, Niel told Le Parisien.

"We are putting pressure on operators to improve fire safety. EDF has made progress, particularly in the design of buildings and the isolation of different parts within a site... Further efforts must be made concerning the management of flammable materials at the sites to avoid further spreading. EDF must increase fire safety exercises," Niel said.

In its report, ASN said that fire safety could be "broadly improved" in areas such as the protocol for handling materials flammable under extreme heat as well as the containment of fires and the procedure for dealing with them.

Around 80% of the fire incidents reported in 2011 were resolved by fire extinctions or "simple maneuvers," the watchdog said.

ASN wants to further strengthen safety guidelines through distribution of "fire permits" for areas of nuclear sites in which flammable material or components are used.

The lessons from the Fukushima disaster in 2011 continue to impact the French nuclear sector, which remains dominated by state controlled firms such as EDF and Areva, the nuclear plant and fuel supplier.

As well as commitments made by EDF to improve the safety of its plants, the French government pledged in May to invest Eur50 million in research projects focusing on the impacts of power plant accidents.

The government wants to improve the "management of such accidents [as Fukushima] by operators and public authorities, better understand the consequences of these accidents regarding the release of radioactive materials, and quantify their impact on safety and the environment," it said.

The safety projects are to include studies on the impact of extreme weather conditions including heatwaves, droughts and tidal surges, government documents showed.

The government is also planning to tighten security against terrorist threats at nuclear installations including fuel sites, and is to propose new laws in the autumn which will hike the financial liability of nuclear power operator EDF in the case of accident from Eur92 billion to Eur700 billion.

These laws are to include new areas of liability for the operator, including non-material damages from accidents, costs from unusable natural resources, as well as emergency procedure costs.

Looming over the nuclear sector is the prospect of downsizing the power plant fleet, as President Francois Hollande has pledged to reduce the share of nuclear power from 75% of generation to 50% by 2025.

However, legislation which puts into practice the multi-year legal process for shutting nuclear power plants is yet to be presented to parliament, and the only closure announced by the government is the shutdown at the end of 2016 of the two oldest operational reactors at the Fessenheim site.

The government is expected to announce this autumn initial proposals for its long-term energy policy, which should include further details on its plan to gradually shut down nuclear plants.

--Robin Sayles, newsdesk@platts

--Edited by Alisdair Bowles,

Similar stories appear in Nucleonics Week See more information at