PARIS (Reuters) - Flaws found in the production of nuclear waste containers highlight gaps in the safety culture at French nuclear group Areva's nuclear waste recycling facility at La Hague in Normandy, the firm's unions allege.
An internal document from the La Hague CHSCT Health and Safety Committee, which was seen by Reuters, says that in late 2016 the plant produced several substandard containers of vitrified highly radioactive waste.
Areva, which confirmed the incident, said that all units of the plant have appropriate staffing levels in line with safety guidelines. As soon as a problem was discovered, an investigation was launched and repairs were made, it added.
"The ... site operates within strict safety rules which are absolutely not put into question," an Areva spokeswoman said.
A top official for the French nuclear safety authority ASN told Reuters that about five containers had not been produced according to specifications, but denied there was a broader safety problem. It received the CHSCT note in November and had initiated a site inspection and met with management in December.
"We have not observed a deterioration of safety on the site," Helene Heron, head of ASN's Caen unit, which oversees La Hague said, adding that the regulator would be "vigilant" about the issues reported and may adapt some control processes.
Areva La Hague is one of the world's biggest nuclear sites, recycling spent fuel for EDF and other power utilities abroad, including Japan. Its pools hold nearly 10,000 tonnes of spent nuclear fuel.
In its waste processing unit, Areva mixes calcified nuclear waste with molten glass, which is then poured into stainless steel containers destined for deep geological storage.
Areva fills hundreds of such containers every year and stores them on-site. Each container weighs 400 to 500 tonnes.
The five containers would be analysed, after which the company will decide what to do with them, Areva said.
"The workshop functions normally and preventive measures are being formulated in order to prevent such an incident from recurring," Areva said.
However, Areva's unions say that the incident is symptomatic of a slackening of the safety culture at La Hague, which they blame on redundancies and cost savings.
Areva employs some 4,000 staff at La Hague, but in a voluntary redundancy plan started in 2015, 346 jobs have been cut as part of a government-led recapitalisation and restructuring that aims to restore the balance sheet of Areva, whose equity has been wiped out by years of losses.
The CHSCT note, which is undated and unsigned, says "frantic cost-cutting is jeopardising long-established procedures" to prevent the risk of technical failures and human error.
The unions say that financial performance is now the main driving force behind the plant's management, which leads to recurrent understaffing.
"We are launching a serious alert message: Until recently we pursued excellence in matters of safety, now we just try to be okay, which makes no sense in an industry that has no room for error," the CHSCT note said.
Several work stations now have staffing levels that only respect minimal levels of security, that some on-call staff do not have the required skills or competencies and that management is relying on workers who are still in training, it added.
The Areva spokeswoman said that since 2015, Areva La Hague has been implementing a major restructuring plan that aims to boost its competitiveness and that it continues to invest 200 million euros ($216 million) a year to ensure the site's safety.
The CHSCT document is highly unusual for the French nuclear industry, in which the unions are closer to management than in many French industries and typically never criticise the safety culture in their plants.
Jean-Claude Zerbib, a retired state nuclear agency CEA engineer who lives close to La Hague, said it is rare for the unions to agree on the same text, and even rarer for them to criticise management about safety.
"Generally, unions and management defend their shop."
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Editing by Andrew Callus/Adrian Croft/Alexander Smith