It's a new year, and it could be the year to end a construction saga surrounding Europe’s ill-fated EPR commercial nuclear reactor model.
French-built EPRs (the acronym originally stood for European Pressurised Reactor and then changed to Evolutionary Power Reactor) could deliver power for the first time on European soil before the end of 2019, according to an S&P Global Platts report.
The commissioning of EPRs in France and Finland would conclude a sorry saga of delays and cost overruns for the reactor design. Construction started in 2005 on the first EPR, Olkiluoto 3 in Finland, with an estimated start date of 2010.
Not only has the project taken almost three times as long to build, but it has also seen costs balloon. In 2012 the project was already expected to cost about €8.5 billion ($9.8 billion at today’s exchange rate), nearly three times the reactor’s original €3 billion ($3.5 billion) price tag.
The project has also been blighted by competing compensation claims from the developer, Areva (which rebranded as Orano last year), and the owner, Teollisuuden Voima Oyj.
Areva’s second EPR, being built at the Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant in France, has not fared much better. Construction started at the end of 2007 and was slated to end in 2012, at a cost of €3.3 billion ($3.8 billion). On current estimates it will cost €10.9 billion ($12.6 billion).
Given the history of delays, there is still uncertainty over when both projects will be completed. The S&P Global Platts piece said both could deliver first power before the end of the year, but also noted that Olkiluoto 3 is not due to enter full operation until early 2020.
Dr. Jonathan Cobb, senior communication officer at the World Nuclear Association, confirmed regular electricity generation is unlikely to commence before January 2020.
Olkiluoto 3 passed key pre-operational hot functional tests on its coolant circuits and safety systems in May 2018, he said.
Fuel will be loaded into the reactor core this June, and the reactor should be connected to the grid in October, at which point it will be considered to be in operation. The Flamanville 3 reactor is following close behind, but appears unlikely to come online this year.
Hot testing of the reactor is due to begin shortly, said Cobb, with fuel loading likely to happen in the fourth quarter of 2019 and full operation next year.
Last July, Reuters reported that trouble with welds had forced the plant’s owner, EDF, to postpone grid connection to the first quarter of 2020, with commercial operation slated to follow in the second quarter.
It’s this kind of hiccup that makes it hard to gauge whether start-date estimates will slip again. However, said Cobb: “As projects move into the final stages of testing and commissioning, there should be greater certainty with the projected schedules.”
And at least there is one EPR in the world that is already up and running. After Olkiluoto 3 and Flamanville 3, Areva sold two more EPRs to China for a nuclear power plant in Taishan, Guangdong.
True to form, both reactors suffered delays, but Taishan 1 finally started delivering electricity to the grid in June last year and began commercial operation in December. Taishan 2 is scheduled to follow suit this year.
The haphazard progress of EPR deliveries has cast doubt over the viability of the design. The concept is being proposed for new nuclear installations in the United Kingdom, India and Saudi Arabia, and is likely to be championed if further plants are built in France.
However, the prospects for further EPR sales are “uncertain, at best,” said Edward Kee of the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Economics Consulting Group. “The EPR appears to be difficult to build and may not be an attractive technology compared with other offerings,” he said.
More importantly, he noted, “the French government seems to have little interest in or capacity to enter into the broader government-to-government and project funding arrangements that Russian and Chinese nuclear vendors are offering.”
After the lackluster performance of EPR projects to date, the fact that even the French are unwilling the back the reactors could render possible buyers wary.