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Leaky Pipe Shuts Down France’s Oldest Nuclear Plant

The technical failure has revived the debate on the need to permanently close the plant as France strives to reduce its reliance on nuclear energy.

by Melodie Bouchaud
Mar 2 2015, 7:50pm

Image via Wikimedia Commons

France's oldest nuclear power plant has been shut down after a leak was discovered on a pipe in Reactor 1 — one of two 900-megawatt nuclear reactors at the plant.

The reactor at Fessenheim plant was closed down Saturday night after the defective pipe was found in the machine room, in a nuclear-free zone, according to a statement by state-owned energy supplier Électricité de France (EDF).

Reactor 2 had already been shut down earlier in the week for scheduled maintenance work and refueling, the company said.

EDF, which operates multiple nuclear sites in France and abroad, insisted that the incident at Fessenheim, located in eastern France near the Swiss and German borders, "had no consequence on the safety of the plant, the environment or the staff."

A spokeswoman for the Fessenheim plant told Reuters that, "Activity could resume in the coming days." But the latest incident has reignited public debate on the need to permanently close the aging power station, which has been operational since 1977.

Related: Nuclear Energy Could Be the Key to Fighting Global Warming

Environmental activists and politicians have lobbied for years to have the plant shut down, partly because it was built in a moderately earthquake-prone area that is also at risk from floods.

Saturday marked the second site shutdown since April 2014, when a technical failure involving a regulating valve in the steam turbine of Reactor 2 was almost immediately followed by a leak in a water supply pipe in Reactor 1. The failures led anti-nuclear activists to renew their calls for the permanent closure of the plant.

On Sunday, French Green party deputy Denis Baupin took to Twitter to call for officials to give the plant "a dignified death."

During his 2012 election campaign, French president François Hollande promised to shut Fessenheim down by 2016, as part of a wider plan to cut France's reliance on atomic energy by 25 percent by 2025. Nuclear power currently accounts for almost 75 percent of France's energy production.

But the shutdown of the plant remains a controversial issue, complicated by the economic and social impacts of a closure. Local politicians say that plant, which currently employs about 1,000 people, has brought prosperity to the region.

In the fall, the French Committee on Finance presented a report to the National Assembly calling for a postponement to the scheduled 2016 closure of Fessenheim, citing damaging economic impacts. 

According to the report, shutting the plant down would cost the state close to 5 billion euros ($5.6 billion) — even before the costs of dismantling the plant. This figure was calculated in part based on the plant's estimated annual profits of around 200 million euro ($224.5 million).

In October 2014, during a heated radio debate on French nuclear safety sparked by mysterious drone activity above nuclear power stations, French Environment and Energy Minister Ségolène Royal refused to confirm a 2016 closure, saying that, "Important investments have been made on Fessenheim, and they must be taken into account." 

State-owned EDF has invested close to 500 million euros ($561 million) in recent years to modernize the plant.

That same month, French parliament's lower house voted in favor of Hollande's pledge to cut the country's share of nuclear-generated electricity down to 50 percent by 2025. But the opposition-controlled Senate has since inserted minor changes to parts of the energy bill, which threatens to upend the president's stated goals. The upper house is set to vote on the watered-down version of the proposed law tomorrow.

In response, Green party secretary Emmanuelle Cosse told French radio France Bleu Monday her party would withdraw its support for the president unless he "stood up for the energy transition bill."

Related: Drones Have Been Spotted Flying Over French Nuclear Power Plants.

Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho