Saturday, August 16, 2008

New trouble at Olkiluoto

Greenpeace exploits tensions between Areva and Bouygues

[Olkiluoto plant under construction - Helsingin SanomatUpdate 08/20/08]

The Financial Times of London reports that Finland's nuclear safety authority has launched an inquiry into the quality of welding work on construction of the country's fifth nuclear reactor due to be completed in 2011. Reuters reports the international environmental group Greenpeace went public last week with claims of problems with welds that do not meet safety requirements.

Areva denied Greenpeace’s claims and said it was “stunned” by the comments from the Finnish authority over the welding issues.

"These had been dealt with last winter," Areva said, “The subject was raised with the subcontractor concerned, Bouygues. The necessary measures were taken to conform to the Finnish safety authority’s demands.”

One wedge issue no waiting

The claims by the environmental group appeared to be aimed at two objectives - stopping construction work on the new reactor and driving a wedge between Areva and Bouygues which are building the plant. The FT reported that a public dispute broke out between Areva, which is supplying the 1,600 MWe EPR reactor and Bouygues, which is the construction contractor. Bouygues denied it had anything to do with the welding and demanded an immediate retraction from Areva, which continued to insist that the construction group had been designated to oversee this part of the work.

The newspaper said there is deep-seated enmity between the two companies. Areva is reportedly fiercely resisting Bouygues’ attempts to promote a merger with Alstom, the construction group’s turbine affiliate. The tensions could further jeopardize the project.

Greenpeace claims based on leaked documents

weldingThe Helsingin Sanomat reported Greenpeace claims that the first welding instructions were not complete until November 2006, when some of the welding work that had been done had already been immersed in concrete, and fixing it was no longer possible. This week a current affairs television program broadcast on Finnish TV reported that there was no oversight for the welding. “There is no way to know that the quality that was sought has been achieved”, Lauri Myllyvirta of Finnish Greenpeace said on the TV news report.

In a report prepared for Greenpeace, nuclear scientist Helmut Hirsch said the welding procedure specification for the steel framework, built by Bouygues for France's Areva, had been approved after the work had started.

'Specifications were approved and used without approval of a third party,' the report said. Hirsch made his assessment based on 11 documents that had been leaked from Bouyugues.

This isn't the first time Greenepace has disrupted work at Olkiluoto. In May 2007 several activists breached the security of the construction zone and climbed up into the steel scaffolding of the plant.

Video of Greenpeace protest at Olkiluoto

Regulators rejects Greenpeace claims

Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) official Petteri Tippana told the Finnish newspaper that there have been shortcomings at the construction site on naming a competent welding coordinator. However, he emphasized that the power connections that are critical from the security point of view have been made according to specifications, and that a competent welder was used for the work. STUK has also inspected the power connections by hand.

Tiippana told Reuters, "The ministry will ask for a report on this issue. We are therefore rather sure, that is, we are sure, that welding work that is important for safety has been done properly."

situational_awarenessThe Finnish regulator is no sock puppet for the nuclear industry despite claims by Greenpeace. Last September STUK stopped work on the steel containment liner over quality assurance issues. The subcontractors were asked to propose how to improve the welding process and its quality assurance as well as the supervision of work in future work phases. STUK also required that loads exerted on the weld seam during accident situations be verified by independent calculations. The strength of the steel liner in pre-calculated situations must be demonstrated by laboratory tests the agency said.

High stakes ride on the success of the reactor

poker chipsIn addition to casting doubt on the integrity of construction of the plant, Greenpeace also likely drew some satisfaction from setting off a public dispute between the two main contractors for the plant and probably caused as much delay from this outcome as the claim of improper welding procedures.

This new reactor is one of two current efforts to build new Areva EPRs in Europe. The other is in Flamanville, France. Failure at either site could bring the nuclear renaissance in Europe to a screeching halt.

ScrewUpThe current construction activity wasn't derailed in Finland, but the charges by Greenpeace made a big media splash and in the court of public opinion likely created doubts that will remain for some time. The activists got an added bonus of setting off a public dispute by the major firms involved in the project. So here's a note to firms building new nuclear reactors. The next time an environmental group makes a media splash with claims of problems at your site, take a deep breath, and think about how many different ways they are trying to run the train off its tracks.

Update 08/20/08

A wire service report from Helsinki indicates that claims of poor quality welding work at a Finnish nuclear reactor under construction were rejected Wednesday by the Finnish nuclear watchdog. The Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) said allegations of "faulty" checks of the welding work being built at Olkiluoto, south-western Finland were "false."

Environmental group Greenpeace cited "confidential documents" for its call to halt work on the reactor.

STUK said it had monitored welding "of importance for security" and had not found reason to question how the work was planned or conducted, noting that it had approved the welding procedures used.

Prior coverage on this blog

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