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UPDATE 2-French nuclear safety authority to rule on EDF reactor lifespan in 2020-21

2020-21@

* First ASN recommendation expected in 2020

* Core catchers, spent-fuel pools part of ASN review

* ASN talking to EDF about safety of spent fuel pools

* EDF and Areva have investigated half of Creusot documents (Adds Greenpeace, EDF comments on spent-fuel pools)

PARIS, Nov 8 (Reuters) - France's ASN nuclear regulator will rule on a potential lifespan extension of EDF's nuclear reactors in 2020-21, ASN chief Pierre-Franck Chevet said on Wednesday.

France's 58 nuclear reactors, operated by state-controlled utility EDF, were built in large part between the end of the 1970s and early 1980s and are coming to the end of their 40-year life, which EDF wants to extend to 50 years.

"We estimate that we will issue a first recommendation in 2020, which will be followed by a legally binding ruling in 2021," Chevet told a parliamentary committee.

In a hearing on the safety and security of France's 58 nuclear reactors, Chevet said safety levels were satisfactory overall, despite a number of anomalies and incidents reported in recent weeks.

But he reiterated that financial difficulties of EDF and reactor builder Areva were worrying from a safety point of view.

Chevet said the standardisation of French nuclear reactors - all use the same pressurised water technology - makes problem detection easier but also increases the risk of a generic flaw that can force the closure of several reactors at the same time.

He said the absence of a "core catcher" in all of EDF's existing reactors will also be an issue in the ASN's decision on whether or not to extend the lifespan.

EDF's new EPR reactor, under construction in Flamanville, has a giant ashtray-like bowl that can contain a core in case of meltdown. Older reactors lack this feature and could suffer the "China Syndrome" with molten fuel burning into the ground and reaching the water table in case of an accident, Chevet said.

Responding to questions from Greenpeace about the safety of EDF's spent-fuel pools, Chevet said the ASN was talking to EDF about improving the safety of the pools, which can contain two to three reactor cores but which do not have the same thick containment walls as the reactor vessels.

A Greenpeace report last month said EDF's spent-fuel pools are vulnerable to external malicious attacks.

Greenpeace's Yannick Rousselet told parliament that with weapons that can easily be acquired in France, it would be possible to blow holes in the spent-fuel buildings' walls.

"I have no fear for our spent-fuel pools...their walls are not as thin as some people say," EDF nuclear fleet chief Dominique Miniere told parliament.

But he added that EDF is looking at additional and mobile cooling systems for the pools.

Chevet also said that EDF and Areva had investigated about half of the millions of pages of manufacturing documentation at Areva's Creusot unit.

French regulators last year discovered manufacturing flaws and falsified documentation at the foundry, which makes components for nuclear reactors.

So far, two issues with potential impact have been found, which have led to the closure of the Gravelines 5 reactor for months, while Fessenheim 2 is still closed.

"My message is that since the review is not yet closed we will no doubt in the coming year find one or two, a few bad surprises," ASN's Chevet told the hearing. (Reporting by Geert De Clercq and Bate Felix; Editing by Adrian Croft)