France’s nuclear energy crisis frustrates Europe’s bid to ditch Russian energy

PARIS – Steam plumes rose over two reactors recently at the Chinon nuclear power plant in the green heart of France’s Loire Valley. But the sky over the third reactor was unusually clear – its operations froze after the alarming discovery of cracks in the cooling system.

The partial shutdown isn’t unique: About half of France’s atomic fleet, the largest in Europe, has been decommissioned due to a storm of unexpected problems swirling around the country’s state-backed nuclear power operator, Éelectricité de France, or EDF.

As the European Union moves to Cut ties with Russian oil and gas In the wake of Moscow’s war on Ukraine, France bet on its nuclear plants to weather a looming energy crisis. Nuclear power provides about 70 percent of French electricity, a larger share than any other country in the world.

But the industry has plunged into an unprecedented energy crisis as EDF faces problems ranging from the mysterious appearance of stress corrosion inside nuclear plants to a hotter climate that makes it difficult to cool old reactors.

Blackouts at EDF, Europe’s largest source of electricity, have plunged France’s nuclear power production to its lowest level in nearly 30 years, driving French electricity bills to record levels as war raged in Ukraine. wider inflation. Instead of pumping massive amounts of electricity to Britain, Italy and other European countries that depend on Russian oil, France faces the troubling prospect of starting blackouts this winter and having to import energy.

EDF, which already has a debt of 43 billion euros (about $45 billion), is also vulnerable to a recent deal involving state-backed Russia. Nuclear power operator, RosatomThis could add to the new financial pain for the French company. The problems swelled so quickly that the government of President Emmanuel Macron hinted that the EDF might need to be nationalised.

“We cannot rule it out,” Energy Transition Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher said on Tuesday. “We will need massive investments in EDF.”

The crisis could not come at a worse time. oil prices I touched record heights After the European Union agreed to cut off Russian oil, exacerbating the economic pain in Europe and adding to the cost-of-living crisis that France and other countries are striving to address. The price of natural gas, which France uses to offset fluctuations in nuclear-powered energy, has also risen.

As Russian aggression redefines energy considerations in Europe, nuclear power Defenders say It could help close Europe’s fuel shortfall, completing a shift that was already underway to adapt wind, solar and other renewable energy to meet ambitious climate change goals.

But fixing the crisis in the EDF will not be easy.

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

But the French nuclear industry, much of it built in the 1980s, has been plagued for decades by a lack of new investment. Experts say it has lost valuable engineering experience as people retire or relocate, which has had repercussions for EDF’s ability to maintain existing power plants — or build ones to replace them.

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

Mr Macron recently announced a €51.7 billion scheme for Rebuilding France’s nuclear program. EDF will build the first of up to 14 large, next-generation pressurized water reactors by 2035, as well as smaller nuclear plants – the cornerstone of a broader effort to promote energy independence in France and Meet climate goals.

But the few new nuclear reactors that EDF built have suffered from massive cost overruns and delays. An EDF-made pressurized water reactor at Hinkley Point, in southwest England, won’t start operating until 2027 — four years behind schedule and too late to help Britain quickly switch away from Russian oil and gas. Finland’s newest nuclear power plant EDF, which Work started last monthIt was supposed to be completed in 2009.

EDF’s recent problems began escalating before Russia invaded Ukraine. The company warned last winter that it can no longer produce a steady supply of nuclear power, as it struggles to catch up with a two-year delay in required maintenance for dozens of old reactors that have been put on hold during coronavirus shutdowns.

Inspections revealed bothersome safety issues – particularly corrosion and defective weld seals on critical systems used to cool the reactor’s radiant core. Such was the situation at the Chinon atomic plant, one of France’s oldest nuclear power plants, which produces 6 percent of EDF’s nuclear energy.

EDF is now cleaning all of its nuclear facilities for such problems. Dozens of reactors will be kept separate for corrosion checks or repairs that could take months or years. 16 Post is still offline for reviews and promotions.

Others are forced to cut power production due to climate change concerns: Rivers in southern France, including the Rhone and the Gironde, are warming early each year, and spring and summer temperatures often reach temperatures that do not allow reactors to cool.

Today, French nuclear production is at its lowest level since 1993, generating less than half of the 61.4 gigawatts that the fleet can produce. (EDF also generates electricity using renewable technologies, gas and coal.) Even if some reactors resume in the summer, French nuclear production will be 25 percent lower than normal this winter – with alarming consequences.

“If you have power plants that are running below capacity, we will either have to go out or go back to carbon-emitting energy, which is coal or natural gas,” said Thierry Bruce, an energy expert and professor at the Paris Institute. Political Studies.

The government, which owns 84 percent of EDF, has intensified the conflict. With market electricity prices close to €500 per megawatt-hour last winter, Mr Macron ordered the EDF to increase the power it sells to third-party providers at a cap of just €46 per megawatt-hour, fulfilling a political pledge to protect French households from inflation. .

But to replenish its power supply while dozens of nuclear plants are offline, EDF has had to buy electricity at high prices on the open market, at a projected cost of more than €10 billion this year. The move infuriated the EDF’s combative CEO, Jean-Bernard Levy, so much that he made an official appeal to the government.

As the unrest escalated, the French government dumped a €2 billion lifeline to EDF in February. But this is not enough to solve her problems.

The debt-laden company is also facing risk with a government-backed deal tied to Rosatom, long-time customer of EDF components and largest buyer of powerful French-made Arabelle steam turbines, which are located at both Rosatom and EDF nuclear plants.

Despite the war, France worked as usual with Russia on nuclear energy, which remained exempt from EU sanctions. Mr Macron in February backed a deal for EDF to acquire the Arabelle turbine business, worth €1.1 billion, from General Electric, to return the manufacturer to French ownership after GE bought it from Alstom in 2015.

EDF is now seeking a lower valuation of the deal amid fears that Rosatom’s business could falter, after Finland last month canceled Rosatom contracts for new nuclear plants. If Rosatom experiences additional cancellations or construction delays in other countries, EDF could face lower turbine orders and new losses.

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

“If anything, the current crisis makes this project, and the ambition to reorganize or nationalize the EDF nuclear fleet, more legitimate than ever – for France and its European partners,” the bank said.

Adele Cordonnier Contribute to the preparation of reports.