Update: Salem Areva/Le Creusot nuclear scandal

Note on pic: The cooling tower in the background belongs to the Hope Creek 1 reactor. This is a “boiling water reactor,” a somewhat different technology than Salem I and 2, in the foreground, which are “pressurized water reactors.”

At the very end of 2016, Green Delaware reported on a major nuclear power industry scandal.  See the link for the whole story, but to recap briefly:  Areva/Le Creusot Forge, a major supplier of nuclear plant parts–big, vital parts, such as steam generators and reactor vessels–was found to be using defective manufacturing methods and falsifying paperwork.  The factory has been closed down by the French Nuclear Safety Authority.

There are only a few places in the world that can forge the huge steel parts several inches thick that contain the nuclear power genie.  AREVA/Le Creusot  is one of these, and it has had many orders from the US.  The essence of the metallurgical problem is that the parts could contain excessive amounts of carbon which could lead to cracking of the steel and let the nuclear genie out of the bottle.

French regulators have taken this seriously and a number of French reactors have been shut down for thorough inspection.  Defects have been found.  In the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the agency that regulates the nuclear industry–and many feel is actually part of the nuclear industry–seems to be taking the problems less seriously.

The first problem is knowing what US reactors might contain AREVA/Le Creusot parts.  The second is determining whether these parts may be dangerously defective.  Since paperwork was being falsified, and reports are contradictory, the only way to be sure is to shut down and inspect.  A list of affected reactors provided to the NRC by Areva on Feb. 3, 2017 did not include Salem.  But other materials from Areva did mention Salem (Example here from Areva marketing materials. Another example from an investor presentation.)

At first glance this might seem silly.  Pressure vessels have permanent tags attached, indicating who made them, to what code, when, what the pressure limits are, the thickness of metal, and so on.  If we were dealing with an air compressor tank, a water heater, or an ordinary  boiler, we’d just look at the tag.  But in nuclear energy nothing is that simple.

Green Delaware has joined in an emergency enforcement action petition to the NRC, participated in a meeting of the Petition Review Board, and been in touch with Greenpeace France, who originally surfaced the concerns about Salem, the resident NRC inspectors at Salem, and the Bureau of Nuclear Engineering of the State of New Jersey.

The NRC continues to insist there are no problems, saying in a March 17th letter that “… there remain no safety concerns at operating US nuclear plants at this time.”

Once potentially defective Areva/Le Creusot parts are identified, they need to be inspected/tested.  Determining the internal properties of forgings several inches thick is no trivial problem, but indications can be determined by surface material testing in appropriate locations.  At the moment we only know of planned testing at the Millstone 2 reactor in Connecticut.

The NRC’s position is:  “…  the NRC is not currently requiring any specific action by U.S. plant owners who have large components installed in their plants manufactured at Creusot Forge.”

The French nuclear regulator, obviously closer to the Areva/Le Creusot situation, is taking a rather different position, as quoted in this Reuters story:

Areva factory ill-equipped to make nuclear parts – French watchdog

By Geert De Clercq | PARIS

Creusot Forge, a supplier of nuclear plants around the world owned by France’s Areva (AREVA.PA), is under investigation for making substandard parts and falsifying documents.

Now, France’s nuclear regulator says machinery at the plant, which was shut for commercial production last year, is not up to the job.

In an interview, Remy Catteau, the head of nuclear equipment at the ASN (Nuclear Safety Authority), said that an inspection of the plant late last year showed that it did not have the right equipment to produce the parts for the nuclear reactors.

“Creusot Forge is at the limit of its technical capacity. The tools at its disposal are not adequate to manufacture such huge components. In such a situation, errors are made,” Catteau told Reuters by telephone.

“The inspection brought to light the fact that the safety culture in the plant is not sufficient to produce nuclear components.”

The disclosure adds to the problems of Areva, once the world’s biggest nuclear company, which owns Creusot Forge.

Areva shut the factory after it found that manufacturing documents at the plant may have been falsified over some 40 years and parts made by the foundry did not meet specifications.

Authorities around the world have checked the nuclear reactors using the parts. Two reactors in France – Fessenheim 2 and Gravelines 5 – were shut after the checks due to safety concerns.

The investigation by the regulator is ongoing but Areva hopes to restart production at the factory this summer, if ASN allows it.

Creusot Forge is one of the world’s few foundries able to make the huge steel components that form the heart of nuclear reactors and is a key part in the French nuclear industry’s supply chain.

Areva clients, which include France’s EDF (EDF.PA) and utilities across the world, could take their business elsewhere if the plant stays shut. Areva could also subcontract its foundry work to other nuclear specialists such as Japan Steel Works and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (7011.T).

Catteau did not say whether ASN believed the machinery needed to be replaced before Creusot Forge could reopen.

A spokesman for Areva declined to comment on the foundry’s equipment. He said the plant still has a future as Areva would invest 8 million euros (£6.94 million) to guarantee the quality of components. He said Areva aimed to restart commercial activities at Creusot Forge by the summer.

ASN wrote to Areva in January with a list of questions about quality and safety at the plant but did not focus on the equipment. ASN has said Areva must answer them by the end of March. It is not clear what criteria ASN will use for deciding if the plant can be reopened or how the response to the questions is linked to the potential reopening.

The plant makes steam generators and other components for current-generation nuclear plants but was also tasked with making large parts for a new generation of European Pressurized Reactors (EPR). Britain has approved EDF’s project to build two EPRs in Hinkley Point and Creusot Forge is expected to make some of its parts.

INSPECTIONS

Precision is critical when making parts such as containment vessels, which are huge steel cylinders that house the reactor core and control rods.

Creusot Forge made the vessel lid and bottom for the Flamanville 3 EPR reactor under construction in western France. But at the end of 2014, Areva discovered excessive carbon concentrations in those components, which weaken the steel.

“For Flamanville 3, the equipment was at its limit, there was no margin for error,” Catteau said.

Flamanville’s future is now uncertain. The ASN will rule by the summer whether the new reactor can go into operation by 2018, despite those weak spots. A red light would lead to years of further delays for Areva and its customer EDF.

Regulators from the U.S., Britain, China and other countries are also looking into quality and manufacturing issues at the Creusot Forge foundry in eastern France after Areva unearthed the false manufacturing documentation from the 1965-2013 period.

“One of the ways to resolve problems was to hide things, and that was the wrong way,” Catteau said.

INDUSTRY OVERHAUL

The letter sent to Areva in late January demanded answers to questions over quality control, staffing levels, management oversight and training and compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) standards. Catteau noted that Areva had a plan to overhaul its operations.

“But there is still a lot to do before Creusot Forge will be at the right level,” he said.

The ASN has long warned that the financial difficulties of France’s nuclear industry pose a safety risk, and Catteau said this could also partly explain Creusot’s quality breakdowns.

Areva is being restructured and recapitalised with help from the French state after years of losses wiped out its equity. It lost 665 million euros last year, 2.04 billion euros in 2015 and 4.83 billion euros in 2014.

Critics of France’s nuclear energy establishment say the problems at Creusot Forge prove that oversight of the whole industry, including the ASN, needs an overhaul.

World Nuclear Industry Status Report author Mycle Schneider said France’s parliament should task independent experts with an inquiry, but he does not see the political will for that.

“The entire chain of responsibility has failed, from Areva to its client EDF and the ASN. I don’t see an initiative yet that addresses the entire scope of the problem,” Schneider said.

(Editing by Anna Willard)

Overall….

The nuclear industry is dying worldwide. Existing plants are being closed one at a time. Worldwide, outside of China, only a few plants are under construction and all these are experiencing long delays and cost overruns. Westinghouse, owned by Hitachi, and the last US-based nuke plant vendor, is preparing to declare bankruptcy.  Only weak/corrupt regulators, political clout, and buried subsidies are keeping the nukes running at all.  Our energy future lies elsewhere.

The Areva/Le Creusot scandal is big, is worldwide, and is another nail in the nuclear coffin.

We still don’t know how the scandal will ultimately impact Salem 1 and 2, but we know these units are dinosaurs.  They vacuum the fish out of the Delaware Estuary, they vacuum dollars out of our pockets, and they may be giving us cancer.

See HEALTH TRENDS AND PATTERNS IN SALEM COUNTY, NEW JERSEY BEFORE AND AFTER STARTUP OF THE SALEM/HOPE CREEK NUCLEAR PLANT.  (This report and its predecessors are generally denounced by the nuclear industry and the public health establishment.)

See this for some background on schemes to build another reactor at Salem.

Also upcoming is another episode of the unending controversy over the Salem open-circuit cooling systems that vacuum marine life out of the Estuary.  Delaware and New Jersey regulators have consistently seen this as mostly an opportunity to extort money from PSEG, owner of the reactors.

Stand by…..

Alan Muller

One thought on “Update: Salem Areva/Le Creusot nuclear scandal

  1. David Arday, MD, MPH

    I read the Radiation and Public Health Project’s (RPHP) report on Salem County, NJ, and I think it raises more questions about the study’s methods than it does indictments about the nuclear plant. I don’t know if I would 100% denounce it, but I would align with the public health establishment in heavily criticizing it. The biggest problems are:

    1. They didn’t adjust for or consider other likely and known confounding factors fully enough. They age adjusted–which is an important first step–and did some simple stratified analyses, but the overall effort was rather crude.
    2. They didn’t account for potential random effects, which requires statistical testing be performed. There is also excessive precision (numbers to the right of the decimal point) given their population counts.
    3. They didn’t reference or otherwise support their claims in the rather brief discussion that there were no other apparent changes that would likely account for the rise in cancer rates. And beyond the ones they did mention, I can think of a lot of things they didn’t consider. One particular example is that smaller, rural counties in the U.S. have had rising all cause mortality for the past 20 yrs., including rising cancer mortality, due to higher rates of smoking, overweight, opioid abuse, etc., etc.
    4. They argued in the discussion for conclusions beyond what their data show, and failed to mention obvious problems with their data.

    Doing these sorts of investigations is not easy. The RPHP group apparently picked some readily available low-hanging data “fruit” from NJ’s public health data repository and attempted to make a mountain out of it. Particularly problematic is their including all types of cancer, since many forms of cancer are not related to the types of radioactive isotopes released by nuclear power plants (i.e., childhood leukemias are likely associated, but prostate cancers almost certainly are not). Even if the RPHP has found similar results for other U.S. nuclear plant neighborhoods–and I don’t know if they have or not–that wouldn’t yet be proof, though it might add some weight to their argument, particularly if they only looked at radiation associated cancers.

    But I also point out that their table 6 actually discounts their argument. If all cause mortality is higher in Salem county, too, then that suggests something other than radioactive emissions are in play (like all the things associated with rising rural mortality that I mentioned in 3, above). That is unless they can show that the increase is entirely due to radiation associated cancers. That last point might have been possible to do with the data they had–at least they could’ve presented cancer mortality v. all other causes– so why didn’t they do it? It definitely calls into question their motives, though in the current era of “alternative facts” that’s hardly unusual.

    Of course, the above is really just an aside on the primary issue of your post, which is the Areva/Le Creusot cover-up scandal. And that is a lot more worrisome to me than the questionable claims made by the RPHP folks. It now seems likely that there are some U.S. reactor vessels that don’t meet the containment specifications they were supposed to, and that is a real problem–making an accidental disaster more likely to happen. Unfortunately, under the Trump administration this scandal will probably be totally ignored.

    And as a final note, Westinghouse Electric having just declared bankruptcy is not necessarily good news for the world, either. While the nuclear energy company’s economic failure might help derail the ongoing construction of 4 new nuclear generator units in the southern U.S., combined with the problems at Areva, the strongest remaining source of nuclear power plant technology and fuel is Russia’s state-owned Rosatom, which has clients in Eastern Europe. This gives Russia another means to put political pressure on the EU, and that cannot be good news for anyone but Putin. I doubt anyone in Russia is critically examining Rosatom’s safety procedures, despite the U.S.S.R. having suffered the Chernobyl disaster 30 years ago.

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