France’s companies fear power outages, the government is reassuring

France’s companies fear power outages, the government is reassuring

Penly Last Friday, Bruno Le Maire stood on a chalk cliff on the English Channel. French Economy Minister looks down at the Penly nuclear power station at the foot of the Normandy cliffs.

The two reactors actually supply 3.6 million households with electricity. They have now been offline for months for maintenance and repairs. The energy company and power plant operator EDF plans to supply electricity again in mid-February.

At the same time as Le Maire’s visit, the French network operator RTE is playing through the case of power shortages in winter in a crisis scenario with controlled blackouts.

But the politician dismisses it: “Let’s stop saying that our reactors are closed, that it’s a catastrophe, that we can’t escape it, that the winter is becoming unbearable,” he says. “That’s not true.”

The warnings of possible power outages as a result of the restricted operation of the nuclear power plant have unsettled France. The economy is also concerned about possible production losses and temporary business closures. “Winter will be complicated,” said Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, head of the business association Medef.

Despite warnings, power outages are considered unlikely

However: An uncontrolled blackout is ruled out. The scenario of planned local power cuts is also unlikely. The Ecowatt color signal, with which the French are warned in the event of network overload, will remain green for the time being – despite the cold spell that is affecting France, like many other countries in Europe, these days.

The evening before Le Maire’s visit, three more nuclear reactors were back online. A total of 40 of 56 reactors are now running. At the peak of the nuclear doldrums, more than half of the reactors were idle.

“Power outages are not an inevitable fate,” said Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, chairman of the board of energy supplier Engie. “If anything, a small part of the national territory will be affected for a few hours.”

>> Read here: France is ramping up its nuclear power plants again – and wants to speed up the construction of new reactors

The French government repeatedly called for energy saving throughout the autumn and also painted the horrifying picture of blackouts on the wall. In the meantime, she is trying to recapture the increasing insecurity of the French.

“Don’t panic,” said President Emmanuel Macron in a recent interview. His government is only preparing for extreme scenarios that cannot be ruled out. “It is her duty.”

Insiders in Paris say Macron’s government has been shaped by the pandemic. At that time she had to be accused of not having prepared for a worst-case scenario. Therefore, in the energy crisis, special effort is now being made to prevent it.

Material fatigue in the pipes

Some of the nuclear power plants failed due to corrosion problems in the cooling circuit pipes. In addition, maintenance work was postponed during the pandemic, which then accumulated at the worst possible time in the energy crisis. In normal times, France covers around 70 percent of its electricity needs with nuclear power, and many French people heat with electricity.

In the coming weeks, further reactors are to be started up again. This will probably also include the two pressurized water reactors in Penly. Penly 1 has been off the grid for more than a year after it was discovered that the piping system had failed. The repairs to this reactor have now been completed, now Penly 2 follows.

Turbine hall of Penly nuclear power station

An employee of the French energy supplier EDF on a tour of the nuclear power plant in Normandy, which has been shut down due to material fatigue in the pipelines.

(Photo: Bloomberg)

For Le Maire’s visit, EDF set up a demo station in a hall of the power plant, where the minister can be shown the complex technology used to examine pipes for the smallest cracks and then reseal them. The welding machine is placed on the tubes and controlled along the surfaces by remote control.

The renovation of the power plant park is an “industrial challenge,” said the new EDF boss Luc Rémont, who accompanied the minister to Penly. The pressure on the group, which the French government is fully nationalizing again in recent weeks, is great. Rémont said EDF workers were “totally mobilized” to solve the “technical problems”.

The company has also enlisted outside help, including welders from the US and Canada. “We work day and night,” said Rémont. The French could therefore face the winter “with confidence”.

>> Read here: EDF expects a loss of 32 billion euros due to the failure of nuclear reactors

The economy is still thinking a lot about the consequences of possible blackouts for their business. Even in the worst case, the government’s emergency plan provides for interruptions in supply limited to small areas for around two hours each. There should also be a warning of at best three days.

But many questions arise for entrepreneurs: How can cold chains be maintained? How to conduct business when telephones, cell phones and the internet fail? Will deliveries be delayed? Do production lines in factories have to be shut down?

Many companies buy emergency generators

According to a report in the newspaper “Les Échos”, many companies and retailers are currently stocking up on emergency generators. “There are two types of companies: the defense industry, the healthcare industry or data centers that are considered critical infrastructure have been equipped for a long time because of legal regulations,” said Lenaïk Andrieux, president of the Gigrel association, which brings together manufacturers of gensets in France and generators. “And then there are the others who are barely equipped.”

Small businesses in the trades and retail sector in particular are looking to the next few months with concern. In addition to the high energy prices, there is now the fear of shutdowns, said Jean-Mathieu Delacourt from the industry association FTPE. Power cuts of two hours may still be manageable, “but there will be problems with outages of a day or more”. For shopkeepers in particular, power cuts would be “catastrophic.”

Paris predicts Germany’s return to nuclear energy

In the winter months, France hopes to be able to make ends meet thanks to electricity supplies from Germany. However, nuclear power is not up for grabs in the neighboring country. In Penly, Le Maire explains: “There is no great industrialized nation without nuclear energy.” And prophesied that at some point all industrialized countries would return to the use of nuclear power – including Germany.

Macron has announced plans to build six new reactors at multiple sites in France. In all likelihood, Penly will be the first to do so.

When looking down on the factory site from the cliffs in Normandy, Le Maire can also see a fallow area next to the two gray reactor blocks. Preparatory work for two more reactors is to begin here from 2024.

The main phase is then scheduled to start in 2027, with the timetable for completion by 2035. “Of course, 2034 would be even better,” says the Economics Minister.

More: Gas against electricity – Germany is now receiving gas from France

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