January 2001

Quality control problems at French nuclear cladding plant

FT.com, December 13, 2000
By Matthew Jones in London

[Posted 04/01/2001]

A French nuclear fuel cladding manufacturer failed to reveal quality control problems at its assembly plant for nine months while British Nuclear Fuels was facing international criticism for similar problems at its Sellafield plant in Northern England.

Cezus, a subsidiary of Framatome, the French atomic fuel group, produced up to 900,000 zirconium alloy cladding tubes without proper quality checks during an 18 month period.

Cezus discovered the problem at its Paimboeuf plant in France in February this year but only told Framatome management, who then informed the French nuclear safety regulator, in November. Most of the cladding tubes had by then been installed in reactors in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia.

The revelation is likely to embarrass the French nuclear industry as the quality control problems occured at the same time as problems at British Nuclear Fuels' mixed-oxide (Mox) production plant in Sellafield.

BNFL admitted in September 1999 that some of its workers had falsified quality checks on fuel sent to Japan, leading to widespread international condemnation and a moratorium on BNFL Mox fuel contracts.

Mycle Schneider, executive director of WISE-Paris, a French energy consultancy that has investigated the affair, said that although there was no evidence of Cezus deliberately falsifying quality checks, as in the case of BNFL, parallels between the two cases could be drawn.

"The length of time before this was revealed and the scale of the cladding tubes produced without proper quality checks means this is in some senses more serious than the BNFL affair," he said.

The problem occured when an automatic ultrasonic inspection unit, used for detecting blemishes and cracks in the metal cladding tubes, failed to work properly. Framatome said statistical checks had shown that only 11 defective tubes would have slipped through the checking process out of the 900,000 manufactured during the period.

"This would not have any safety consequences and is very different to BNFL's problems. We are, however, conducting an investigation into the procedures at Cezus to make sure this doesn't happen again," said an official.

The French nuclear regulator has classified the incident at "level 1" on the International Nuclear Event Scale, which has seven levels, because of the delay in disclosing the problem. The BNFL incident was not considered by the UK regulator to be serious enough to register on the scale at all.

Cladding tubes are used to house nuclear fuel pellets which are then inserted into a nuclear reactor. Mr Schneider said he would now like to see more thorough investigations carried out by Framatome's customers to ensure there was no danger of non-complying tubes preventing the insertion of control rods required to regulate atomic reactors.

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