a market driven to the forefront for Endel, HEF and Technetics

Endel SRA, a Lyon-based specialist in televised inspection of nuclear power plants and high-pressure cleaning, had already developed a robotic solution in 2006 to control the water passages that make up the spacer plates of steam generators, a key area of ​​nuclear facilities. But it only made it possible to examine about 30% of them.

“The generator is formed by a bundle of more than 5,000 tubes 10 meters high. These tubes are supported by elements called spacer plates. Our first system made it possible to control the upper and lower plates of the generator “explains Jean-Paul Mandier, managing director of the SME based in Lyon with 180 employees (turnover: 25 million euros).

Created in 1927 under the name of Société Régionale d’Assainissement, it was subsequently annexed successively to Lyonnaise des Eaux, Suez Environnement, Engie and, a few weeks ago, to the new Altrad – Endel group.

“Current maintenance technologies have not made it possible to inspect all installations of these plates so far, so we had to go further to further improve the safety of the nuclear fleet, which is already at a very high level. any deposits present, as part of a high level preventative approach”.

An investment of 1.7 million euros

Endel SRA is therefore preparing to invest €1.7 million to develop an automated inspection robot, an investment matched by up to 50% by the nuclear section of the France Relance plan. Equipped with a 4mm camera currently under development by a partner of the Lyon-based company and lighting capable of projecting from a distance of one metre, these miniature robots will be able to check all these plates.

The first robot will be ready by the end of this year. It should bring Endel SRA an additional turnover, – not negligible, but not accurately measured -, in a context of growing needs for maintenance of the nuclear fleet. In France, but also internationally.

Another big advantage of these new tools: technicians will no longer need to log into the system, they will be able to remotely control the robot, thus reducing the risk of radiation exposure. A major challenge to facilitate recruitment in an industry that suffers from a shortage of candidates.

“A lot of work on nuclear facilities will happen over the next few years, it’s essential to be there and make us attractive to young talent”insists Jean-Paul Mandier, director of the company, but also president of IFARE, an association that brings together about a hundred regional companies that supply nuclear energy.

“Improving worker safety and offering new and attractive technologies are two key points of attractiveness”he continues, noting in passing that most Endel SRA robots are controlled by Playstation controllers.

A nuclear seal production facility in Saint-Etienne

About 100 kilometers from Endel SRA, two other companies are also working hard to improve nuclear safety. The companies of Loire Technetics France (45 million euros in turnover / 250 employees) and HEF (3,150 employees, 274 million euros in turnover) have joined forces under the Texeal programme, also selected under the France Relance, for an investment amount of 1.75 million euros. The first specializes in the manufacture of sealing solutions, the second in surface engineering.

The objective this time is to develop a seal intended in particular for the closing heads of pressure vessels in nuclear power plants. A seal that combines texturing produced with femtosecond technology dominated by HEF and know-how patented by Technetics.

“Until now, the performance of the nuclear reactor vessel head gaskets has been equivalent to the volume of a thimble elapsed in five years. Thanks to this innovation, this volume increases to that of a pin head in 2,000 years. Therefore, we are not aiming for some percentage gains, but a very significant evolution”, indicates Bertrand Nicolet, innovation director of the HEF de Saint-Etienne group.

The technical and economic feasibility was validated. The first seals, with a maximum diameter of two meters, must be produced before the end of the year. 2023 will allow an extension of capacity to 5 meters. A small production facility is being set up for fabrication and surface texturing at the same location.