France's ASN to rule on EDF reactor lifespans by end 2020: ASN nominee

PARIS (Reuters) - France’s ASN nuclear regulator will issue by the end of 2020 its long-awaited and much-delayed generic ruling on the life span extension of utility EDF’s nuclear plants, said the French government’s nominee to head the ASN.

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows France's oldest Electricite de France (EDF) nuclear power station, outside the eastern French village of Fessenheim, France, January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler/File Photo

“Based on the information at my disposal, the generic ruling should be issued at the end of 2020,” Bernard Doroszczuk said at a French senate committee hearing about his nomination.

The ruling, which is crucial for EDF, has been repeatedly delayed, most recently by outgoing ASN chief Pierre-Franck Chevet.

Chevet said in November 2017 that the ASN would rule on those reactor lifespans in 2020-21, with a first recommendation in 2020 to be followed by a legally binding ruling in 2021.

France’s 58 nuclear reactors, operated by state-controlled EDF, were built in large part between the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s. They are coming to the end of their 40-year design lifespan, which EDF wants to extend to 50 years.

The first of EDF’s 34 reactors with 900 megawatt capacity will reach the 40-year threshold in the next 2-3 years. At that point, each individual reactor is given a thorough inspection, and the ASN then rules on whether it can continue to operate.

Doroszczuk said the ASN’s generic ruling on lifespan extensions was not a prerequisite for the 40-year inspections.

He said these inspections would take place between 2019, starting with the Tricastin reactor, and continue until 2030 for EDF’s oldest generation of 900 megawatt reactors.

The French government will publish its long-term energy strategy at the end of this month, which is set to define by when France will reduce the share of nuclear in electricity generation to 50 percent from the current 75 percent.

That process could involve closing up to a third of EDF’s reactors. The government has said the ASN ruling will be a major factor in this decision and could hedge the long-term energy strategy on the outcome of the ASN ruling.

Doroszczuk confirmed that the absence of a “core catcher” feature in EDF’s existing reactors will be an issue in the ASN’s lifespan decision.

EDF’s new EPR reactor, under construction in Flamanville, has a giant ashtray-like bowl that can contain its core in case of meltdown, but older reactors lack this feature and could suffer the “China Syndrome” with molten fuel burning into the ground and reaching the water table in case of an accident.

Doroszczuck said that not all EDF’s 900 MW reactors have the necessary space to add such a feature.

Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta