The world’s second third-generation European Pressurised Reactor has gone online in China, bucking the trend of lengthy delays and overspend that has plagued three other EPR projects. Can the recent Chinese success story save the technology’s reputation or is it already too late? We investigate. In September 2019, EDF Energy announced that Unit 2 of its third-generation European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) technology at the Taishan nuclear power plant in China was set to enter commercial operation – a year after the first reactor at the site was successfully installed. For the technology and EDF, the announcement was a rare bit of good news. Three other projects deploying EPRs in Europe are now notoriously over budget and grossly delayed. But while the completion of Taishan effectively proves the technology (the viability of which many were beginning to doubt), the ongoing problems with the European projects still raise concerns about its future, especially in a changing energy ecosystem. Designed in the 1990s, the EPR was created to replace large one-gigawatt reactors in France and was supposed to represent a new, more modern generation of nuclear reactors. Building of reactors at Flamanville, in the Manche region of France, commenced in May 2006 with an end date of 2012, but is yet to be completed. In June 2019, it was announced Flamanville would be delayed yet again. It will take up to three more years, after the French regulator said constructors needed to repair eight faulty weldings in the reactor’s containment building. Costs for the project have risen from an estimated €3bn to €10.9bn. Similarly, another EPR reactor being built in Finland at Olkiluoto power plant is now over 10 years late and costing three times the original estimated price. Hinkley Point C, one of the newest EPR projects, which is being built in Britain, hasn’t fared much better. In September 2019, EDF said the plant will cost up to £2.9bn more than thought and was ‘at risk’ of being delivered 15 months late. Another reactor is planned to be built at Sizewell in the UK, but that is now in doubt. Even the Chinese projects recently delivered were around five years late. Professor Steve Thomas of Greenwich University says the EPR technology is, quite simply, a ‘bastard to build’. “The technology was designed to minimise space and complexity, but consequently became very complex to build,” he says. The problems with the welding at Flamanville demonstrate this. EDF wanted to send in robots instead of people which need to contort themselves to do the job, but the regulator wouldn’t allow it. Thomas highlighted the problems of the EPR in a paper entitled The EPR in Crisis nearly 10 years ago and says the situation has only got worse. Chris Gadomski, lead analyst for nuclear at BloombergNEF, agrees. Asked why China were able to complete their projects while the ones in Europe continue to face delays, he says: “One could make the argument that Western Europe has forgotten how to build these large reactors. All the people who built them have reached retirement age and are no longer in the business, whereas in China, they’ve been cultivating their expertise over the last 20-30 years, so they have a much more robust labour pool.” However, Dr Jonathan Cobb, senior communication manager at the World Nuclear Association, says learning from the construction of the Finnish, French and Chinese plants should be a major benefit for completing Hinkley Point C, minimising future delays. “The experience of building the first unit at Hinkley Point C is already bringing benefits to the construction of the second unit. What is important now is, having rebuilt the skills base in Europe, that we take advantage of that expertise and move ahead with new nuclear build projects, such as Sizewell C,” he says.
Power Technology 5th Dec 2019 read more »