This isn't a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield
Areva, the French nuclear energy industry giant, is recovering from several setbacks building a $4 billion reactor in Olkiluto, Finland, which is the first of its kind in Europe in the past 15 years. A series of technical and regulatory problems have cost the firm $700 million euro the Wall Street Journal reports (subscription required). The problems have generated lots of bad press for the nuclear industry.
A Finnish nuclear regulatory group issued a long report on the difficulties Areva has encountered and lays the blame on a lack of know-how and lack of safety discipline. Jukka Laaksonen, director of the agency, said, "you can't play with specifications in the nuclear sector." Behind this is the stark fact that the lack of orders for new nuclear plants has stripped the industry of people who know how to build them.
This is borne out by a statement by Areva's project manager, Philippe Knoche, who said the firm had troubles managing the work of subcontractors many of who have no experience building a nuclear plant. Area's problems are being closely watched in the US and in China where orders for new plants are coming in after decades of no activity. China has just given Areva an order for two new reactors to be built in that country. Knoche's concern is how fast his company can create the expertise it needs to build the 1,600 Mw plant in Finland and others like it in China.
The US Nuclear Regualtory Commission has also taken note of the issue. In an informational notice published February 5th this year, the agency worried aloud about quality assurance in the construction of new nuclear plants. The agency wrote there are several conditions under which major quality problems might recur. These include the following:
A first-time utility with staffs or an architect/engineer, construction manager, or constructors (vendors and fabricators) that have inadequate nuclear design or construction experience;
A very large growth in the number of nuclear power plants being constructed that can overwhelm the industry’s and NRC’s capabilities;
A long delay before nuclear plant construction activities start again,resulting in a dearth of experience in the industry;
Regulatory actions at federal and state levels that undercut quality. The NRC and the nuclear industry need to be aware of the implications for quality that these possibilities hold.
Back in Finland Areva and the nuclear oversight agency say they both are learning some lessons about how to get work done. For its part Area says it is learning to how to have better communication with the regulators. That may help. Now where are those nuclear workers who left to open donut shops 20 years ago?