France: the shutdown of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant in four questions

The shutdown of the first Fessenheim reactor marks the start of the dismantling of the oldest nuclear power plant in France. REUTERS / Vincent Kessler / Files

Text by: Romain Philips Follow

The shutdown of the first Fessenheim reactor on Saturday 22 February marks a first step in the process of shutting down the oldest nuclear power plant in France.


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It's the beginning of the end for Fessenheim. After years of debate and postponement, the first reactor of the oldest nuclear power plant in France will be shutdown on Saturday February 22 , the second will follow on June 30. A first step before the total dismantling of the nuclear infrastructure. Commissioned in 1977, the plant has experienced numerous demonstrations and criticisms from its French, but also German opponents.

■ What is the Fessenheim power plant?

Consisting of two 900-megawatt (MW) second-generation reactors, which operate on pressurized water, this plant was the first component of the second largest nuclear fleet in the world, behind the United States. The first in terms of the number of reactors (58 in total) per inhabitant. Located along the Rhine, on the edge of the German border and a few kilometers from Switzerland, it has been on the hot seat since 2011 , the year in which François Hollande promised to stop.

► Also listen : Stop at Fessenheim, the oldest nuclear power station in France closes

Since its creation, the Fessenheim plant has produced " nearly 430 billion kWh, or approximately the annual electricity consumption of France ", according to the operator . Of this production, 17.5% goes to Switzerland and 15% to Germany, because the two countries hold an equivalent stake in the structure.

The Fessenheim reactors operate on pressurized water, an American technology, different from the “ graphite-gas ” technology, abandoned in France after the 1980 incident at the Saint-Laurent nuclear power plant. In the Fessenheim reactors, it is therefore water which is used as a “ moderator ” and which makes it possible to refrigerate the core of the nuclear reactor.

■ Why is it closing?

It is "a first step in the energy strategy of France" welcomed Matignon at the signing of the decree formalizing the stop Fessenheim Wednesday 19 February. The shutdown of the reactors is part of the French government's desire to reduce the share of nuclear energy in French electricity production from 75% to 50%. Twelve reactors are to follow Fessenheim, without, however, causing total shutdown of new plants, by 2035.

The Nuclear Safety Authority also recommended in October that the two reactors be shut down in 2020 and 2022. EDF wanted to operate it longer. It is for this reason that the company will be compensated with a sum " close to 400 million euros " for " the anticipation of expenses related to the closure of the plant ". Additional payments can also be made later " corresponding to a possible shortfall ," says the group .

Fessenheim is also the target of many critics who have been more and more virulent since the Fukushima disaster in 2011. For Charlotte Mijeon, spokesperson for the Sortir du nuclear network, the plant " has several problems ". Beyond aging, its position in a proven seismic zone and below the Grand Canal of Alsace, making possible the risk of " flooding and submersion in the event of a rupture of the channel ", still worries the antinuclear groups.

The sums provisioned for the inevitable dismantling of old nuclear power plants, like that of #Fessenheim, are largely underestimated #telsonne

Greenpeace France (@greenpeacefr) February 20, 2020

■ How will the plant stop?

This Friday, February 21, at 8:30 p.m., the technicians present in the plant will launch the gradual shutdown of the reactor. This will result in a gradual drop in temperature and pressure, which reach 306.5 ° C and 155 bar respectively at full speed. The end of the procedure is estimated at around 2 am the next day. " When the reactor is lowered to 8% of its power, it can be " decoupled " , that is to say disconnected from the national electricity network ", details EDF.

While the second reactor will be shut down next June, the dismantling will extend until 2040, at a minimum. The priority for EDF will be to evacuate " all of the fuel before 2023 ", according to the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN). Part of the waste will be kept in decontamination pools. A project that worries the association Sortir du nuclear, because the non-bunkered pools are sensitive to the same risks as the power plant. The nuclear waste will then be distributed according to their radioactivity in different centers such as that of reprocessing of La Hague or those of Andra (the National Agency for the management of radioactive waste).

Once most of the most dangerous substances have been removed, the buildings and various equipment will be dismantled, established according to a dismantling plan presented by EDF. However, the plan, in its current version, is " insufficient " according to ASN, which requests " additional information " concerning in particular " the condition of the equipment that will be used for dismantling operations, as well as waste management ". It is the first time in France that a project to dismantle such a large power plant has been carried out.

■ What impacts for the region?

#Fessenheim is a land of the future. I came with @EmmWargon in the Haut-Rhin to provide all the guarantees of success for the transition initiated following the closure of the #centrale, by appointing a commissioner for the reconversion of the territory of Fessenheim.

Elisabeth BORNE (@Elisabeth_Borne) February 21, 2020

The closure of the plant is " a trauma for the territory ", laments Claude Brender, the mayor of Fessenheim, who estimates at the microphone of RFI that this closure is done " in an electoral manner ". In this region, EDF is the "principal employer". When the plant was running at full speed, "2,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs" were linked to its activity, according to INSEE . An industry that also allowed several businesses to live thanks to the attractiveness of the place and the many workers who gravitated around the installation.

In an attempt to reassure the elected officials of this region, which is poorly endowed in terms of industries, the Minister for the Ecological Transition, who had already promised that there would be no job loss after the closure of Fessenheim, went in Colmar this Friday. She wanted to reaffirm the government's support for the Technocentre project, which is to see the light of day in the region. " We (...) reaffirmed the State's desire to create a center of excellence in nuclear dismantling in Fessenheim, supported by a Technocentre for the recycling of metallic materials. For his part, Claude Brender is reassured on this point, but remains skeptical since this project devoted to the recycling of metallic materials will bring " 150 jobs but at best in 10 years ". Other projects are under consideration in partnership with German players.

Several mobilizations are planned for Saturday 22 around Fessenheim. Local elected officials will come together to remind the government of the importance of not abandoning this territory. At the same time, anti-nuclear organizations have also planned events to show their determination to see the dismantling projects succeed. " Fessenheim should not be the tree hiding the forest, " says Charlotte Mijeon. There are 56 nuclear reactors left in France and in the next five years, around thirty reactors will have passed 40 years of operation. "

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