Nuclear Renaissance Stalls: Problems Plague Launch of 'Safer' Next-Generation Reactors

By Dinah Deckstein, Frank Dohmen and Cordula Meyer

The executives of electric utilities worldwide are dreaming of a renaissance in nuclear power. But problems with a new, state-of-the-art reactor in Finland suggest that this is unlikely to happen. The industry's alternative strategy is to modernize older plants to drastically extend reactor lifetimes.

The managers at Finnish electric utility TVO expressed one last wish before ordering what would be the world's largest nuclear power plant from Siemens and the French nuclear power conglomerate Areva. They wanted the reactor to be painted oxblood red and white, the traditional colors of the picturesque summer homes on Finland's western coast.

At least the two companies have managed to fulfill that request. Workers are currently securing colored panels to the turbine building. Otherwise, not much is going as it should be on Europe's biggest nuclear construction site.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Nuclear Deficiencies

TVO and the two manufacturing companies are involved in a heated dispute, as they battle over billions in out-of-court settlements. Costs have exploded, and the project is already several years behind schedule. Critics accuse the consortium of having made dangerous mistakes. The concrete, they say, is porous, the steel is brittle and some of the design principles seem so risky that experts from the Finnish nuclear regulatory agency can only shake their heads in wonder.

TVO and Areva are doing their best to create the impression that everything about the project is fine. Floodlights illuminate the future reactor building, convoys of cement mixers criss-cross the site, and workers wearing protective jackets walk around, speaking Polish, Finnish, German, French, Slovak and Serbo-Croatian. In the administration building next to the construction site, TVO project manager Jouni Silvennoinen recites one superlative after the next. According to Silvennoinen, the world's first third-generation nuclear reactor, a European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR), is being build at this site near Olkiluoto on the Gulf of Bothnis. The most powerful nuclear power plant in the world, he says, will be capable of generating enough electricity to support a city of one million inhabitants.

Silvennoinen is adept at working with a laser pointer and big numbers. He says that 4,300 workers from 60 countries, working for 700 subcontractors will pour 200,000 cubic meters (7,057,510 cubic feet) of concrete on their multinational construction site. "It's impressive to see all these thousands of people working to achieve a common goal," says Silvennoinen.

Bad News for the Nuclear Industry

Areva project manager Jean-Pierre Mouroux isn't particularly worried about the construction problems. "We've learned a lot and have acquired experiences that we can use for the next EPR," he says.

In reality, however, the problems with this showcase plant are bad news for the nuclear industry, which has been hoping for a comeback of its large-scale technology. Olkiluoto was meant to be its model for the future, but now those hopes appear to have been dashed.

Nuclear industry executives in the industrialized countries are not pinning their hopes on new plants as much as on a sort of low-cost renaissance. The want to see their aging plants, built in the days when VW was still making the Beetle in Germany, simply continue to produce electricity well beyond the end of their originally planned lives. Even in Germany, where nuclear power is not very popular, the future administration of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) wants to make it possible for the nuclear industry to extend the lifelines of its plants.

Modernization instead of new construction. Is the new strategy to launch a renaissance through the back door? At first, the chaos surrounding the Olkiluoto reactor reveals that the industry is by no means ready to build new power plants cheaply and safely in the Western world. Utilities, with their massive financial risks, can no longer support such mammoth projects -- unless the government steps in.

Hardly anyone had expected a disaster when the French state-owned company Areva and Germany's Siemens Group offered the Finns a turn-key version of their EPR prototype: for a total price of €3 billion ($4.47 billion). The French assumed responsibility for the nuclear portion and the control technology, while Siemens' main role was to supply steam turbines and transformers. It was December 2003, and it seemed like a good deal to the TVO managers.

The plant was originally scheduled to go into operation this spring. But now its grand opening has been rescheduled for 2012 -- perhaps. Whether the project will succeed "depends on the behavior of my clients," says Areva executive Mouroux. He is referring to TVO.

Besides, the construction will cost at least €2.3 billion more than originally planned. The reserves for anticipated losses are eating up virtually all of Areva's corporate profits. Siemens, for its part, has already been forced to set aside sums numbering in the triple-digit millions.

Drawn-Out Court Cases

This prompted Areva to sue TVO for €1 billion in damages at the beginning of this year. The suit alleges that TVO spent too much time processing blueprints and other documents. TVO has filed a countersuit, demanding €2.4 billion in damages for lost earnings as a result of delayed completion of the plant. The court cases will likely continue long after the construction is complete.

Meanwhile, executives at both companies have taken to constantly attacking one another. Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon recently threatened to stop construction in Olkiluoto unless TVO agreed to fixed rules of cooperation and approved everything more quickly. A Siemens spokesman was unwilling to comment on Lauvergeon's threat, citing the ongoing arbitration proceedings. Nevertheless, senior Siemens executives have also privately criticized their Finnish client, saying that TVO was partly at fault for the delays because the company took far too long to pass on the construction documents to regulatory authorities.

The accusations were all false, TVO board Chairman Timo Rajala shot back more than two weeks ago, saying that Areva first "sold the reactor and then began its detailed planning." According to Rajala, there are no longer normal business relations between the two companies. And the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) has halted construction in Olkiluoto several times, citing the companies' failure to comply with its requirements.

3,000 Construction Mistakes To Date

The EPR, the first reactor in the so-called third generation, is the world's most modern nuclear machine, a hybrid of German and French reactor development. The EPR has an internal steel shell reinforced with concrete, which is designed to safely seal off the external concrete dome, as well as a ceramic basin underneath the reactor. All of these innovations are intended to absorb the intense heat generated in the event of a meltdown or other serious accident.

But hybrids are complicated things, which helps to explain the more than 3,000 mistakes that have occurred in construction to date. The most important unanswered question relates to "the senses, nerves and brain of the reactor," or the automatic control system in a nuclear power plant, says STUK director Petteri Tiippana.

In a letter of protest STUK General Director Jukka Laaksonen sent to Areva CEO Lauvergeon last December, he wrote that he could see no "real progress" in the "design of the control and protection systems," and complained that "evident design defects" are not being corrected. According to Laaksonen, the "attitude or lack of professional knowledge" of Areva representatives is obstructing progress. Unfortunately, Laaksonen wrote, his authority was still waiting for "a proper design that meets the basic principles of nuclear safety." According to Areva, the sharply worded letter is simply part of a normal dialogue over safety issues.

Tiippana, the STUK director overlooking the project, is a 37-year-old engineer with a shock of hair and frameless glasses. He says that the manufacturers still haven't produced an updated design. In mid-year, the British nuclear regulatory agency also found fault with the design of the control system. This leads experts to believe that Areva will not succeed in building an EPR in Great Britain within the next eight years.

Construction problems began to accumulate from the very beginning. A supplier had made mistakes in processing pipes that are used in the main cooling cycle and lead directly to the reactor, and the defects prevented the pipes from being tested with ultrasound. Areva had the pipes replaced. The next pipes could be tested, but then cracks were discovered on the surface.

The company that built the reactor foundation used a different type of concrete than had been specified. Although the material was easier to process, it was more porous and therefore required an additional seal. Welding defects were found in the steel used to reinforce the interior of the concrete shell. A Polish company cut holes in incorrect locations, which then had to be welded shut again. These deficiencies had no effect on reactor safety, says Tiippana, because they were all corrected.

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