French Nuclear Power: 10 More Years for Old Reactors?

French Nuclear Power: 10 More Years for Old Reactors?

French nuclear power and its 32 900 MW reactors of EDF will be able to operate 10 years longer than the 40 years initially planned. The ASN has just given the go-ahead for the extension of their lifespan.

This long-awaited opinion came at a time when many of EDF’s nuclear power plants, built in the 1970s and 1980s, are reaching the end of their lives. These reactors are the oldest in the French fleet. Their continuation will therefore be subject to certain conditions.

At the same time, the ASN issued its opinion on the management of former uranium mining sites.

French nuclear power: 10 more years for the oldest reactors in the fleet

ASN gives a favorable opinion on the extension of EDF’s 900 MW reactors

The French nuclear industry and its 32 EDF 900 MW reactors are undergoing their 4th periodic review by the French nuclear safety authority (ASN). As the generic phase of the review drew to a close, the ASN issued its opinion: the 32 reactors examined will be allowed to operate for another 10 years.

This ASN opinion closed the generic phase of the review process, which covers possible modifications to facilities common to all 900 MW reactors. The next step will be to identify, on a case-by-case basis, the modifications to be made to the reactors, according to their specificities. The first evaluation is planned for the Tricastin 1 reactor in southern France in 2022.

EDF will then have to produce annual reports on the actions taken to comply with the required modifications within the prescribed deadlines, for each reactor. Also, the ASN has requested that the reports on the modifications be made public.

A theoretically infinite life span?

Initially planned to operate for 40 years, these reactors will be able to operate for 50 years. But the government still has to take note of the positive opinion of the ASN. In France, although the ASN issues opinions, the power of decision in nuclear matters lies with the government.

The governmental authorization is then valid without time limit. So theoretically, a nuclear reactor could work indefinitely. But on one condition. That every 10 years following the previous periodic review, a new periodic review updates the design studies and identifies the need or not to replace equipment.

At the same time, the ASN issued an opinion on the management of former uranium mining sites.

The ASN issues its opinion on the management of former uranium mining sites

Manage the follow-up of 250 former uranium mine or tailings storage sites

The ASN also issued its opinion on the management of former uranium mining sites. Between 1948 and 2001, uranium mining in France produced 76,000 tons of uranium. These activities concern approximately 250 sites of very different sizes.

The minister in charge of energy (no incumbent at present: under the aegis of the Ministry of Ecological Transition) has therefore referred the matter to the ASN for an opinion on the management of former uranium mining sites. The ASN was also to give recommendations to Orano Mining (formerly Areva). The objective here is to improve the management of former uranium mines and the storage of their tailings. This is called “mine waste rock”, which cannot be mined but is nevertheless irradiated.

Public debate conducted in 2019

A public debate on the subject was conducted during 2019. The storage sites for uranium mine tailings have been considered as “installations classified for environmental protection” (ICPE). This change makes these sites subject to certain articles of the environmental code.

Also, the waste rock that was scattered in the public domain has been taken back. The discussion also highlighted the importance of creating a local dialogue. The objective is to allow for a better consideration of the long-term consequences of these sites.

The ASN also recalled the importance of assessing the impacts of long-term tailings storage. Also, to manage them with a methodology accepted by all stakeholders.

Finally, the ASN considers it necessary to set up a methodological sub-group. It will focus on updating the long-term evaluation methodology. It should also allow for the involvement of local actors.

Opinion on the problem of water treatment

The ASN also wanted to issue an opinion on the question of water treatment. On this point, as on the others, it recommends the use of a methodology recognized by all stakeholders. Local actors are indeed very important.

The ASN recommends that areas of sediment accumulation in rivers or lakes downstream from uranium mining sites be identified. After this identification, a sustainable management will have to be put in place.

In sum, the ASN’s opinion on the continuation of French nuclear reactors for another 10 years is not without constraints. Annual reports will have to be made on each reactor, and the problems of waste and water management will have to be taken into account with local actors.

This opinion is also part of a particular political climate concerning the French nuclear industry. Between energy security and health risk management, nuclear power is dividing public opinion in the run-up to the upcoming elections. At the same time, more than 50 nuclear reactors are under construction around the world.

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