French military shipbuilder announces nuclear reactor project

20/01/2011

DCNS, Frances premier naval defence company and one of Europe’s leading shipbuilders, have announced plans to enter the civilian energy market with “Flexblue”, a submerged “small power” nuclear reactor. Founded on the companies expertise in nuclear submarines, Flexblue will compete with Ariva’s third generation EPR reactor. This competition is likely to shape the future of European nuclear power, as the EU seeks to diversify its energy supplies in the face of fossil fuel depletion.

The project will enter the concept validation phase shortly, with a prototype proposed for 2013. If successful, commercial production could begin by 2016. DCNS’ CEO, Patrick Boissier, has hailed the project as a triumph of European engineering. “This is not a concept imagined by the Americans, China or the Indians, but by the French. We have been working on this for two years”.

One of the projects biggest boasts are far lower operational costs then existing next generation reactor designs. Some claims put the cost of a Flexblue reactor at several hundred million euros, compared to €5 billion for Ariva’s EPR. However, such claims will need market validation before DCNS can legitimately claim to have provided an active competitor with alternative or fossil fuel sources. It is also unclear how the project will fit into existing EU research and collaboration in the nuclear energy sector.

Safety will also be an important consideration. In line with EU civil protection regulations, the next generation EPR reactors must be built to withstand the impact of a jet aircraft. As the Flexblue reactor will operate under water, the danger of an adverse chain reaction during a meltdown or the damaging of the reactors outer shell are greatly magnified. As such, DCNS have claimed that they will build the Flexblue prototype to withstand the impact from an explosive torpedo. Given the companies expertise in military grade nuclear reactors, this seems a realistic claim.