The long French nuclear winter |  Economy

The long French nuclear winter | Economy

Time is pressing, but the French nuclear park is taking longer than expected to get out of the rut. At the gates of winter, and with the cold beginning to take its toll, Eléctricité de France (EDF) —the electric giant about to be renationalized— has delayed the schedule for the reopening of nuclear reactors that have been stopped for months for repairs and overhauls. The inactivity of almost half of the park and, now, the delays in its return to activity, come at the height of the European energy crisis, which has set off all the supply alarms in the Old Continent. And they force their neighbors to generate more to cover their needs.

At the beginning of November, EDF delayed the reopening of four stopped reactors and lowered its forecasts for nuclear electricity production. Of the 56 atomic reactors that France has, 26 are currently stopped, and the company forecasts that atomic production in 2022 will be between 275 and 285 terawatt hours (TWh) compared to between 280 and 300 expected so far.

France is the third largest producer of nuclear energy in the world, behind only the United States and China. Given that it is home to more than half of the reactors in the EU, it can be concluded that this concatenation of technical failures has left almost a quarter of those at Community level out of action.

“Unfortunately, EDF is going through a serious crisis, of a technical and industrial nature, which is exacerbating the tension on the energy supply,” said the company’s new president, Luc Rémont, at a hearing before the National Assembly at the end of October. Former director of Schneider Electric with political experience as adviser to several Ministers of Economy and Finance. “I have no doubts regarding the total mobilization of the company to implement adapted solutions in the best timeframes and to allow the restart of production in completely safe conditions.”

The reason for the stoppages and delays is twofold. On the one hand, the appearance of corrosion problems in the pipes made it necessary, for safety reasons, to repair them (six have already been fixed). On the other, maintenance plans were postponed during the pandemic and have added to the current problems. To complicate matters further, plant workers have participated in strikes this fall to demand higher wages.

“The availability of the nuclear park constitutes, for the coming months, the key factor of food safety in France. The pace of bringing the reactors currently shut down back into service (…) is therefore crucial,” the manager of the French electricity grid, RTE, warned in a report published this Friday. And he added: “In the dead of winter, anticipated reductions in consumption, particularly in the industrial sector, are not in a position to compensate for the foreseeable drop in nuclear production.”

The EDF logo at the Tricastin nuclear power plant, in Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux (France), on November 21.
The EDF logo at the Tricastin nuclear power plant, in Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux (France), on November 21.ERIC GAILLARD (Reuters)

All analysts, and now also RTE itself, point to the month of January as the most critical moment. “It will depend, to a large extent, on weather conditions and a potential cold wave, even if it is moderate,” the latest report reads. Those are the weak wickers on which the energy framework of the second largest economy in the euro rests today, to make matters worse, one of the most electrified countries in the bloc. “At the end of February, there could be an improvement in the security of supply,” adds the system manager, always under the cloak of “uncertainty about the progress of the work.”

The futures market has already begun to price what is to come, with prices above 1,000 euros per megawatt hour (MWh), a level that was already reached last summer —when natural gas volatilized its all-time highs— and is escaping of any rational cabal.

From exporter to net importer of electricity

The great paradox is that nuclear power, which in normal times provides 70% of the electricity France consumes without emitting greenhouse gases, is missing when it is most needed. To the point of having turned this country, historically an exporter of electricity to its neighbors, into a very clear net importer. Less atomic energy than expected in France is not only a headache for EDF and the Macron government: it is also a major problem for Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Spain or the United Kingdom. All of them are having to deal with an unprecedented natural gas supply crisis and, at the same time, having to make up for the energy that France is unable to produce on its own. Without that support, its citizens would be suffering constant blackouts.

“The situation in France is extraordinarily delicate, sensitive. And everything points to the fact that it will continue to be like this all winter,” the Spanish third vice president and minister for the Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera, recently pointed out to questions from this newspaper. “This is part of what we have considered in our warranty scenarios for this winter. I do not hide the fact that moments of tension may occur, in which the proper functioning of the Spanish electrical system is prioritized and, in some cases, warning as far in advance as possible, that it will not be possible to satisfy 100% of the demand of our neighbors to undertake the decisions they deem appropriate.

In its recent winter planning, the manager of the Spanish gas system, Enagás, indicates in red 35 working days of tension for the country’s energy network: the two central weeks of December, the last three of January and the first two of February. A not insignificant part of this alert has to do with the fact that, in the coldest days, the demand in France —where most heating is electric— will skyrocket. In order to cover everything that the neighboring country demands through the electrical interconnection between the two countries, Spain is having to operate combined cycle (gas) plants at full capacity that, under normal conditions, it would not have to start up.

Image of the Cattenom nuclear power plant in October 2017.
Image of the Cattenom nuclear power plant in October 2017. JEAN CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN (AFP)

The energy that should guarantee the sovereignty of France and its partners this winter, the first without Russian gas, is neither seen nor expected. For the anti-nuclear, it is proof of the failure of their model. For the Government, the opposite: the demonstration that atomic energy is necessary. And, far from being a reason to give up the plants, it is the justification for the ambitious program to modernize an aging park and build between six and 14 new plants more than two decades after the last one was inaugurated. A movement that also goes against the current of most neighboring countries, focused on renewables.

“Europe is realizing that French nuclear energy is essential for its resilience,” said the French Minister for Energy Transition, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, a few weeks ago in an interview with El PAÍS. “Everyone needs these nuclear power plants.” Pannier-Runacher alluded to the ecological argument: “The French choice of a nuclear sector is that of many other countries that make the same analysis as we do. What are the ways to decarbonise our economy and achieve carbon neutrality with the technological levers at our disposal? We are lucky to have a nuclear heritage because we have 56 reactors that have proven their efficiency and can be prolonged”. In the EU, very few countries are currently committed to new nuclear power plants. Not so in Asia: China, South Korea, India and, more recently, Japan have plans to increase their capacity or, in the latter case, return to this mode of electricity generation after years of ostracism.

Yves Marignac, from the négaWatt think tank, rebuts: “The myth of nuclear as a guarantor of French energy security and sovereignty is revived with the current crisis, when this discourse has never been so disconnected from the difficulties of the sector and reality of the inexorable progress of renewable energies”. On accelerating the program to build more reactors, Marignac says: “It’s a crazy situation. The more difficulties the nuclear sector has, the more an old reflex to relaunch the nuclear is reinforced”.

six new reactors

The French government has presented a bill this month to accelerate the construction of six new EPR2 type reactors, which should be ready between 2035 and 2037. The project marks Macron’s nuclear commitment after more than a decade conditioned by announcements of plant closures, and by the delays and the explosion of the costs of the only project in progress, that of the new reactor in the Normandy plant of Flamanville, epitome of the difficulties of this technology in the 21st century.

EDF, owner of all the French atomic reactors, is a fundamental piece in this plan. Macron has relieved its president and CEO, Jean-Bernard Lévy, who left accusing successive governments of neglecting nuclear power. And he has decided to renationalize the company, until now owned 86% by the State and soon 100%. The cost for the taxpayer is 9,700 million euros. The group’s debt is expected to reach 60 billion euros at the end of the year. An important part of its recent deficit will stop the blow of prices on homes, but it will not be able to guarantee a security of supply that continues and will continue in the air. As long as the technical tribulations of its other powerful and resistant nuclear park continue.

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