An unprecedented accident reveals serious dysfunction in French nuclear security
by Nolwenn Weiler
December 1, 2017
a translation of
Basta!, December 1, 2017
translation by Dennis Riches
(see the original article for the endnotes omitted from the translation)
In March 2016, during a replacement operation, a 465-ton steam generator fell in the heart of the nuclear power plant in Paluel, Normandy. It was a serious and unprecedented accident, which, miraculously, did not injure anyone or cause radioactive contamination. Since the accident, experts have investigated the causes. As discovered by Basta Magazine, the report, the results of which will be presented to staff on December 1, reveals major failures in the preparation and maintenance of the site, in great part because of the massive reliance on sub-contracting. These are disturbing failures because the number of such nuclear power plant renovations is set to rise sharply.
At 13:00 on March 31, 2016, a deafening crash was heard throughout Sector 2 of the power plant in Paluel, located in Normandy between Dieppe and Le Havre. “We had never heard such a noise,” said one of the staff present that day. “We felt a shake. It was impressive.” After a few moments of confusion, they realized the steam generator, which was being removed from the building and replaced, had crashed to the floor. The 22-meter steel cylinder–the length of two buses lined up–weighs 465 tons. Situated inside the containment structure of the plant, which also houses the nuclear reactor, the steam generator is essential equipment in the operation of a nuclear power plant. It removes the heat from the primary circuit, the water which is heated directly by the nuclear fuel. In the secondary circuit the water is transformed into steam, which then turns the turbines to generate electricity.
How did the generator in Paluel fall? This accident endangered the lives of the workers present, damaged the protective cover of the spent fuel storage pool–which was, fortunately, empty at that time–and could have led to the release of radiation, if the vessel had cracked open. The ASN (Autorité de sûreté nucléaire) announced the next day “the plant is secure” and there was no release of radiation. We had the exclusive opportunity to consult with an independent expert hired by staff at the plant after the accident. The report was produced by an independent agency, Aptéis, at the request of Comité d’hygiène, de sécurité et des conditions de travail (CHSCT). The report was shown to staff at EDF (Eléctricité de France) on December 1. The conclusions reveal that nuclear security in France is at stake.
A serious accident was avoided by “extremely good luck”
These steam generators are as old as the nuclear power plants themselves, the majority of which are approaching forty years of service. Their replacement is a part of the “great renovation,” a program of industrial overhaul begun after the Fukushima catastrophe, intended to prolong the functional duration of the power plants and improve their safety. To replace a steam generator, it is necessary to desolder it, hoist it up and remove it–they call it a “translation”–then they place it on a chariot to take it out of the building.
These operations are done with a specially conceived device, installed in the heart of the building before the plant begins operation. It consists of a rudder, a horizontal steel beam with a hole in it through which cables are laid to attach to the enormous generator. In Paluel, it was in the middle of this operation that the device failed.
Pulling down the steel beam when it fell, the generator landed on the concrete and steel plates which covered the spent fuel pool. “By extraordinary luck, there was no serious injury,” recounted one worker, “the damage, though it was significant, didn’t lead to any irreversible losses.” The generator could have crushed someone. Nine people were present near it, four from Areva and five from Bouygues, one of the sub-contractors, but no one from EDF. The 465-ton piece also could have fallen into the spent fuel pool, or broken open. A crack would have had serious consequences, letting accumulated radioactivity escape from the interior of the generator, as the water that circulated within had contact with uranium fuel. Drones were sent into the reactor building in the days following the accident in order to confirm that no radiation escaped.
Seventy sub-contractors at one work site
Veterans of the nuclear industry wonder how such an accident could have occurred. “The necessary precautions for the lifting operation were simply not observed,” said one employee. “The hoisting mechanism was not able to resist the forces applied. It is difficult to imagine how such an elementary error was not caught by the different levels of control.” The report by the experts at Aptéis, hired by the CHSCT, lifts the veil on this question. The reliance on sub-contractors was directly responsible for the fact that defective equipment was not perceived beforehand, then ignored as the procedure was carried out.
Though the operation was led by a division of EDF called Division de l’ingénierie du parc, de la déconstruction et de l’environnement d’EDF (DIPDE), the steam generator replacements are conducted entirely by outside firms. These are brought together and coordinated within a group of firms. Those that had a role at Paluel were sent by Areva Nuclear Power, along with Eiffage Construction Métallique (BTP), Kaefer Wanner (isolation industrielle) and Orys (a sub-contractor). Employees from Bouygues were present as sub-contractors hired by Areva.
Deadlines cause people to make foolish mistakes
These four firms themselves made use of about seventy smaller sub-contractors. Added to the entities sent by EDF, the presence of all of these firms complicated the sharing of information. This profusion of actors, whose roles were poorly understood by all involved, created a climate of confusion while diluting responsibility. “It’s so complicated that we no longer know who is doing what,” explained one worker.
“How can we efficiently share information in these conditions? All the more so when everyone is pressured to hurry to meet unrealistic deadlines.” One person from EDF stated, “In the nuclear field, in order to estimate the duration of a project, management says ‘without encountering any hazards, we can do it in so many days,’ and from then this is this deadline that becomes the target everyone must aim for. The problem is that these deadlines are completely unrealistic. There are always unexpected hazards, especially in a job like this to replace a steam generator, which at Paluel was the first of many to follow.”
Never before has a generator of this size (1300 MW) been replaced by EDF. Yet at no time was the unprecedented nature of the task properly taken into consideration. “These deadlines,” continues the worker from Paluel, “clearly push people to cut corners. What’s more, if you don’t respect the deadline, they point the finger at you for delaying the work.”
The accident occurred at the time the third generator out of four was being worked on in Sector 2 of the plant. Inside the building, people had noted during the hoisting of the first two reactors that the rudder was swaying dangerously. This information circulated throughout the plant for several days before the accident, even among staff who were not involved with the work. Workers confided to experts making the report, “People really insisted on saying the rudder was bent. The information went up the chain.” In the report, they explain, “Several of the people we interviewed told us the information was not only sent up to the team in charge of replacing the steam generator but also to the project director in Marseille, as well as to the DIPDE [the division at EDF responsible for this project].”
The engineers who lead the project are supposed to be alert for signs of problems. At the time of these various warnings, a meeting was held in the plant. “We knew because the workers had told us,” recounts Thierry Raymond, leader of the collective FNME (Fédération nationale des mines et de l’énergie), “but there was no written record. We don’t know who was there or what was said about it.”
The only certainty: The work proceeded as if nothing was amiss until everything went wrong. “We knew all about it,” sighed one of the staff at Paluel. “But what was discovered through the study afterwards was that the people at DIPDE knew before the project began that there was a problem in the conception, and nothing was done about it!” For Aptéis, the work of all engineers at EDF is in question, as well as the obligation to do everything as fast as possible.
A chain of control failing at many levels
“They have too many cases to manage at once. It’s obvious,” claims one staff member of EDF, “It’s impossible for them to guarantee a serious follow-up. They can warn about something completely incredible without there being any consequences from it.” The task of the engineers at EDF is all the more difficult because it depends on firms voluntarily reporting information. At Paluel, there is an evident tension regarding the obligation to transmit information. Areva signaled only too late the fact that the design of the rudder was different than what had been manufactured until then by EDF. This difference should have prodded the engineers at EDF to pay more attention.
They were only able to declare the problem at the end of 2014, after the rudder had already been manufactured by Areva and delivered to the plant at Paluel, five months before the beginning of operations. Thierry Raymond commented, “The project was so far along that no one could stop it. Someone would have had to dare to make this decision, with the risk that he would be stopping work for no reason, which would set back his career.” Contacted by Basta!, Areva responded that it had made an in-depth analysis of the causes of the accident in the handling and coordination of the work with its client, EDF. They didn’t want to comment further.
The plant at Paluel, where the PR department has no comment, assures us that lessons have been learned from the accident. “Teams in charge of hoisting the steam generators have been formed. A system of regulation has been designed for the entire chain of the process. The work is followed step by step, and information is reported regularly.”
“They followed through,” conceded one union member. “The DIPDE took over the design and was very involved. The inspection was so strict that the second rudder built was not approved because defective soldering was detected.” For the construction of the third rudder, the soldering was verified at each stage of the fabrication. However, there is no guarantee that this strict procedure will be followed during generator replacements at other nuclear power plants.
One would be worrying too easily. One would be called a “catastrophist.”
“The report revealed flaws in our organization with regard to regulation of work sites,” adds a representative for EDF. For the last fifteen years, while the work done by sub-contractors increased, a lot of new personnel have come into EDF. Most of the people who worked during la grande époque, the time when the nuclear fleet was built, have retired. Those who come into the engineering division with their degrees under their belts, quickly find themselves overseeing facilities that they had no part in building. As a result, it is difficult for them to evaluate the real risks.
“For us,” says one engineer from the old generation, “it is impossible to take care of something correctly if we are not able to do it ourselves. We haven’t been able to do this for a long time. If the persons in charge of the steam generator project had had the competence, they would have quickly alerted everyone that there was a problem likely to have serious consequences.”
The experts at Aptéis add, “Supervising doesn’t mean contenting oneself with validating ‘respect for normal procedures’ without needing to understand or deal with what has actually been happening.”
What is worse is that the experienced voices of EDF personnel are ignored. This was the case with the hoisting project at Paluel. There were veteran technicians there, but they weren’t consulted once about work on replacing the generator. “The principle of sub-contracting is that they will work it out without any outsiders needing to intervene in any way, even if the outsiders are the ones who have the know-how,” complains one EDF representative. Whistleblowers are not welcome. “They treat us as people who ask too many questions. We would be worrying too much. We would be called ‘catastrophists.’” But what could be more normal than asking questions about the operation of a nuclear power plant?
We’ve reached the limit with sub-contracting.
The management of Paluel could have taken more interest in remarks made by its staff. “We always said what they were doing was dangerous,” said one union representative. “We even warned about a possible dropping of a steam generator.” Staff at the plant also, on several occasions, pointed the finger at Orys, the sub-contractor in charge of the defective rudder. According to the testimony of one employee of this company, Orys was responsible for several errors. It allowed one worker to do soldering work who didn’t have the proper qualifications. An exterior rudder was exposed to the open air, which caused rust to develop on it because of the proximity of the ocean. Furthermore, the emergency cooling circuit in the heart of the building was damaged during one particular operation.
The situation was so critical that representatives of CGT went to the national director in charge of contracting to take the company off the list of sub-contractors qualified to work at nuclear power plants. “They disregard our union representation when they do this kind of thing. It’s really extremely rare,” stresses Thierry Raymond. Orys was nonetheless paid by EDF three months after the accident for its “responsible safety measures and contribution to the reduction of risk” for another job in the nuclear power plant in Tricastin.
The great renovation is in question
Thierry Raymond adds, “Furthermore, it is difficult for us to report what we are told by certain staff of the sub-contractors if they are not identified. It’s very important to cover for them because they are not protected. The worker from Orys who talked to us was assigned to a job for several weeks before leaving the company for a common reason. “With this generator accident, we’ve reached the limit with sub-contracting for everything, but we’ve continued with it anyway.”
At Paluel, the steam generator was finally removed from the reactor building by a Dutch sub-contractor which had bid unsuccessfully for the initial contract for the removal job. “Without a doubt it was too expensive,” said the workers, “but considering the revenue lost when a plant is shut down–a million euros per day–and the extra costs of studies, design, construction and implementation of the right equipment, we see now that the work in Sector 2 of Paluel has cost more than a billion euros, not to mention the risks imposed on workers who were saved by “extraordinary good luck.” None of this adds up to “nuclear safety.” At a time when the operating licenses of nuclear power plants are going to be extended beyond forty years as part of the great renovation of the nuclear fleet, things have got off to a bad start. Strangely, the ASN (Autorité de sûreté du nucléaire) did not want to respond or listen to persons with expertise at a time when it is tasked with making a judgment on the extension of the licenses of nuclear power plants. Not very reassuring.
a translation of
Basta!, December 1, 2017
translation by Dennis Riches
(see the original article for the endnotes omitted from the translation)