PARIS (Reuters) - A long-awaited report on the safety of the nuclear reactor EDF (EDF.PA) is building in Flamanville, north-western France, declares the reactor vessel fit for purpose, two sources with direct knowledge of the report told Reuters on Friday.
A negative report from the IRSN, the technical arm of French nuclear regulator ASN, would have been a major setback for EDF, costing billions of euros and years of delays as the reactor vessel has been welded in place and the reactor dome was sealed in 2013.
Its safety was under scrutiny because of excessive carbon concentrations - which can make steel brittle - in its base and cover. But the report, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, says the reactor will be able to operate safely, although it will need extra monitoring over its lifetime.
A favourable ruling by the nuclear safety authority is also a European Commission condition for its approval of EDF's takeover of state-owned Areva's (AREVA.PA) reactor unit, which has designed the Flamanville European Pressurised Reactor (EPR). EDF also plans to build two EPRs in Hinkley Point, Britain.
"The (ASN and IRSN) consider that the anomaly does not put into question the fitness for service of the reactor vessel base, on condition that tests scheduled by EDF are adapted so as to detect any faults," the report said in its conclusion.
The report added that these tests, which will have to be done before the reactor's first scheduled ten-year inspection, are of a nature to significantly reinforce safety levels.
The report, written jointly by the IRSN and ASN, said that tests of the reactor cover also show that its mechanical properties are sufficient to prevent a brutal rupture.
For the cover too, additional monitoring will be required during the lifetime of the reactor, but since testing of the cover had been less extensive than the base, closer monitoring would be required.
A group of independent nuclear experts, who received the report last week, will discuss the 180-page document on Monday and Tuesday to formulate an opinion. The ASN has said it will make the report public following the experts' meeting.
Based on the IRSN report and the experts' input, the ASN will draft a provisional ruling - expected in July - about the reactor which it will submit for public consultation until September. Once that consultation over, it will issue a binding ruling on whether the reactor can start up as scheduled in 2018.
Industry experts say it is unlikely that the ASN would deviate far from the IRSN report, as no new technical investigations will be done.
In an interview with Les Echos newspaper early this month, EDF's CEO Jean-Bernard Levy had said that he was "more confident than ever" that the ASN would clear the safety of the vessel.
Early 2015, when the carbon concentrations were discovered, ASN director Pierre-Franck Chevet said these represented a very serious anomaly as they affect a crucial reactor component on which no risk of rupture can be taken.
A source familiar with the ASN report said that while carbon concentrations of about 0.30 percent in some areas were above the regulatory maximum of 0.22 percent, the deviation was not of a nature to threaten the integrity of the reactor in case of physical or thermal shocks.
The source added that the excess carbon concentrations are only present in the base and cover of the vessel, made by Areva-owned foundry Creusot Forge, but not in the vessel's hull, which is more exposed to radiation than the base and cover.
France's anti-nuclear organisations have repeatedly called on the ASN not to approve Flamanville.
"Under pressure from EDF and Areva ... the nuclear watchdog is getting ready to give the green light for this defective piece of equipment which does not meet safety criteria," Sortir du Nucleaire action group said in a statement early this month.
Reporting by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Dale Hudson and Elaine Hardcastle