PARIS (Reuters) - France needs to upgrade the protection of vital functions in all its nuclear reactors to avoid a disaster in the event of a natural calamity, the head of its nuclear safety agency said, adding there was no need to close any plants.
After Japan’s Fukushima disaster in March, France, along with other European countries, decided to carry out safety tests on 58 reactors and its next-generation reactor under construction in northwestern France.
The aim was to test their capacity to resist flooding, earthquakes, power outages, failure of the cooling systems and operational management of accidents.
IRSN, experts on radiation protection and nuclear safety, delivered a 500-page report to nuclear watchdog ASN on Thursday, which will in turn hand over its conclusions, based on the report, to the government at the start of 2012.
Peer reviewers from other European countries will then study the findings until the end of June.
“There is a need to add a layer to protect safety mechanisms in reactors that are vital for the protection of the reactor such as cooling functions and electric powering,” Jacques Repussard, head of the IRSN, told Reuters in an interview.
“For example, it is necessary that each reactor has at least one protected independent diesel generator positioned out of the way which does not fail even in case of an extremely violent earthquake,” he said.
“All reactors have to survive much more violent events than what they were built to resist,” he added, citing as possible examples an earthquake that destroys the southern city of Nice or the collapse of all dams at once, triggering massive floods.
France is in the midst of a heated debate over nuclear energy ahead of the 2012 presidential elections. The ruling UMP party is in favor of maintaining nuclear and the opposition Socialist party is in favor of closing the oldest 24 reactors by 2025.
Budget Minister Valerie Pecresse said this week the closure of 24 reactors would increase consumers’ electricity bills by more than 50 percent, as well as costing jobs in an industry she said employs 400,000 people in France.
France’s oldest reactors were built in sets of two so that in case of a problem with one, the resources of the second, such as personnel and equipment, could be used.
“It was never envisaged that there could be a simultaneous problem in two reactors,” Repussard said.
He said he could not tell how much the upgrades would cost EDF, which operates all of France’s reactors, and how long they would take.
“We would like to see a work schedule that stretches no longer than a few years, but it will be necessary to carry out the works very quickly on the EPR (reactor) under construction. It’s a large-scale industrial plan, which will have to take into account EDF’s maintenance planning,” he added
Asked whether some reactors would not be strong enough to withstand powerful natural events he said: “All the sites can be protected, so it will be about the economics behind the upgrades.”
Repussard also said during a news briefing presenting the report that improvements could be made to better protect some reactors from earthquakes at Bugey (southeast), Fessenheim (east) and Civaux (southwest).
Improvements were also necessary to better protect some reactors against flooding at Fessenheim, Chinon (west), Cruas (southeast), Saint-Laurent (central) and Tricastin (southeast).
Additional reporting by Benjamin Mallet; Editing by William Hardy