France’s nuclear power crisis thwarts Europe’s push to quit Russian power

PARIS — Plumes of steam recently towered over two reactors at the Chinon nuclear power plant, in the heart of France’s verdant Loire Valley. But the skies above a third reactor were exceptionally clear – its operations frozen after the worrying discovery of cracks in the cooling system.

The partial shutdown is not unique: around half of France’s atomic fleet, the largest in Europe, has been taken offline as a storm of unexpected problems swirls around the national nuclear operator, Electricité de France, or EDF.

As the European Union prepares to sever its ties with Russian oil and gas in the wake of Moscow’s war on Ukraine, France has bet on its nuclear power plants to deal with a looming energy crisis. Nuclear energy provides about 70% of France’s electricity, more than any other country in the world.

But the industry has plunged into an unprecedented energy crisis as EDF grapples with problems ranging from the mysterious emergence of stress corrosion inside nuclear power plants to a hotter climate that makes cooling more difficult aging reactors.

Outages at EDF, Europe’s largest electricity exporter, have caused France’s nuclear power generation to fall to its lowest level in nearly 30 years, pushing French electricity bills to levels record as war in Ukraine fuels wider inflation. Instead of pumping large amounts of electricity to Britain, Italy and other European countries relying on Russian oil, France faces the unsettling prospect of triggering blackouts this winter. and having to import electricity.

EDF, already in debt of 43 billion euros (about 45 billion dollars), is also exposed to a recent agreement involving the Russian nuclear operator, Rosatom, which could inflict new financial difficulties on the French company. The unrest exploded so quickly that President Emmanuel Macron’s government hinted that EDF might need to be nationalised.

“We cannot exclude it,” said Agnès Pannier-Runacher, Minister for Energy Transition, on Tuesday. “We are going to need massive investments in EDF.”

The crisis could not have come at a worse time. Oil prices hit record highs after the European Union agreed to cut Russian oil, intensifying economic hardship in Europe and adding to a cost-of-living crisis that France and other countries are struggling to resolve. The price of natural gas, which France uses to compensate for fluctuations in nuclear power, has also increased.

As Russian aggression redefines Europe’s energy considerations, nuclear power advocates say it can help fill Europe’s fuel gap, complementing a shift that was already underway to adapt the wind, solar and other renewables to meet ambitious climate change goals.

But solving the crisis at EDF will not be easy.

With 56 reactors, the French nuclear fleet is the largest after that of the United States. A quarter of Europe’s electricity comes from nuclear power in a dozen countries, with France producing more than half of the total.

But the French nuclear industry, built for the most part in the 1980s, has suffered for decades from a lack of fresh investment. Experts say it lost valuable engineering expertise as people retired or left, with repercussions for EDF’s ability to maintain existing power stations – or build new ones for them. replace.

“EDF’s strategy, endorsed by the government, was to delay reinvestment and transformation of the system,” said Yves Marignac, nuclear energy specialist at négaWatt, a think tank in Paris. “The longer EDF delays, the more skills are lost, the technical problems accumulate and there is a snowball effect.”

Mr Macron recently announced a €51.7 billion plan to rebuild France’s nuclear programme. EDF would build the first of 14 gigantic next-generation pressurized water reactors by 2035, along with smaller nuclear power plants – the cornerstone of a wider effort to strengthen France’s energy independence and achieve climate goals.

But the few new nuclear reactors that EDF has built have been hampered by huge cost overruns and delays. A pressurized water reactor made by EDF at Hinkley Point in south-west England will not start operating until 2027 – four years late and too late to help Britain quickly turn away from the Russian oil and gas. EDF’s newest Finnish nuclear power plant, which started working last monthwas to be completed in 2009.

EDF’s recent problems began to mount just before Russia invaded Ukraine. The company warned last winter that it could no longer produce stable nuclear power as it struggled to catch up on a two-year backlog in required maintenance for dozens of aging reactors that was postponed during shutdowns. coronavirus.

Inspections uncovered alarming safety issues, in particular corrosion and faulty solder joints on crucial systems used to cool a reactor’s radioactive core. This was the case of the Chinon atomic power station, one of the oldest in France, which produces 6% of EDF’s nuclear energy.

EDF now scours all of its nuclear facilities for such problems. A dozen reactors will remain offline for corrosion inspections or repairs that could take months or years. Another 16 remain offline for reviews and updates.

Others have to reduce their electricity production due to climate change concerns: rivers in the south of France, including the Rhône and the Gironde, are warming up earlier each year, often reaching temperatures in spring and summer. too hot to cool the reactors.

Today, French nuclear production is at its lowest level since 1993, generating less than half of the 61.4 gigawatts that the park is capable of producing. (EDF also produces electricity with renewable technologies, gas and coal.) Even if some reactors restart this summer, French nuclear production will be 25% lower than normal this winter, with alarming consequences.

“If you have power plants that are running well below capacity, we will either have to go into blackouts or go back to carbon-emitting energy, which is coal or natural gas,” said Thierry Bros. , energy expert and professor at the Institut de Paris. of political studies.

The government, which owns 84% ​​of EDF, has added to the dispute. As electricity market prices approached €500 per megawatt hour last winter, Mr Macron ordered EDF to increase the power it sells to third-party suppliers to a price cap of just €46 per megawatt hour , thus materializing a political commitment to protect French households from inflation.

But to top up its electricity supplies while dozens of nuclear plants are out of service, EDF has been forced to buy power at high open market prices, at an expected cost of more than 10 billion euros this year. . This decision so exasperated the combative director general of EDF, Jean-Bernard Lévy, that he launched a formal appeal to the government.

As the turmoil mounted, the French government threw EDF a €2 billion lifeline in February. But that’s barely enough to solve his misfortunes.

The debt-ridden company also faces risks with a government-backed deal linked to Rosatom, a long-time customer of EDF components and the biggest buyer of powerful French-made Arabelle steam turbines, found in the nuclear power plants of Rosatom and EDF.

Despite the war, France did business as usual with Russia in the field of nuclear energy, which remained exempt from European Union sanctions. In February, Mr Macron backed a deal for EDF to acquire the €1.1 billion Arabelle turbine business from General Electric, returning the manufacturing business to French ownership after GE l acquired from Alstom in 2015.

EDF is now seeking a lower valuation for the deal, fearing Rosatom’s business could stumble, after Finland last month canceled Rosatom’s contracts for new nuclear power plants. If Rosatom were to face additional cancellations or construction delays in other countries, EDF could face a drop in turbine orders and further losses.

For France’s nuclear industry to recover, the country’s best bet is to stick to the plan to build a fleet of new nuclear power plants, JPMorgan Chase said in a recent analysis.

“In fact, the current crisis makes this project, and the ambition to re-regulate EDF’s nuclear fleet or to nationalize it, more legitimate than ever – for France and its European partners,” the bank said.

Adele Shoemaker contributed report.

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