Luc Rémont, the new boss of the French electricity company Électricité de France (EdF), is a passionate sailor. This winter he has to show how weatherproof he really is. At the end of November, just over half of the nuclear power plants in France were connected to the grid. 29 out of 56 reactors at full power, to be precise. This is partly because maintenance work has been delayed due to the corona pandemic. In addition, there are repairs to the pipes of the emergency cooling system of individual plants, which take longer than planned. EdF will not be able to keep to the timetable presented in September for restarting the shut down systems, that much is already clear.
The French electricity network operator RTE therefore classifies the supply situation as critical, especially at the turn of the year. In the meantime, he only assumes that around 40 gigawatts of output from the nuclear power plants will be available at the beginning of January. The head of the EdF Group will have to take the blame if this value is not even reached. Only a little more than 30 gigawatts are currently available.
40 gigawatts of nuclear power production sounds like a lot to German ears. In France it is not. In the country with the world’s highest share of nuclear energy in the electricity mix – around 70 percent in the past – 40 gigawatts correspond to only around two thirds of the maximum available capacity. 50 to 60 gigawatts are normal in January, emphasizes the CRE, the French counterpart to the Federal Network Agency. Her boss recently warned on television that the austerity appeals should be taken seriously.
Bartering electricity for gas
The lights on the online platform “Ecowatt” should then light up first orange and then red. If less electricity is consumed despite warnings, there is no threat of blackouts in January, said the head of the network agency. In extreme cold, however, targeted one- to two-hour power cuts rotating from place to place could become necessary, somewhat trivially referred to in expert circles as load shedding. Because every third Frenchman heats with electricity, it would not only be dark, but also cold.
The situation in France also has consequences for Germany. The two countries are closely connected via the European power grid. For months, a lot of electricity has been exported from Germany to France, and electricity rarely goes the other way. On some days there is a lot of wind and solar power, on others it is now mostly coal and natural gas. The nuclear power doldrums have long since become a political issue in relations between the two countries. In September, the federal government justified the repeated extension of the service life for the remaining German nuclear power plants until April 2023, not least with the French electricity shortage. Banning the export would be politically unthinkable, especially since the neighbors have converted their long-distance gas network on the border with Saarland and are now pumping smaller quantities of the fuel that Germany urgently needs from west to east. The exchange of electricity for gas is intended to seal an intergovernmental solidarity agreement.
Opinions differ as to why the French nuclear power plant park is weakening now of all times, because gas is so scarce. Some say: It’s simply the age of the systems that causes an accumulation of technical problems. They are actually getting old. Most reactors came online in the 1980s. In response to the oil price shock, France had invested heavily in this new technology, which was intended to make people independent of the whims of foreign energy suppliers.
Political zigzag course
The fact that some reactors in the USA have been in operation for much longer without comparable problems speaks against the thesis of problematic old age. In addition, the cracks in the French pipelines did not appear in the particularly old plants, but mainly in reactors of the latest series, at the Civaux on the Loire and Chooz sites in the Ardennes. These reactors only went into operation almost 20 years ago.
While critics of nuclear power therefore speak of further evidence of the general unreliability of this form of energy production, proponents of the technology point out that after the reactor accident in Fukushima, safety requirements were also tightened in France. It is undisputed that nuclear energy has not been invested as heavily as it used to be since former President François Hollande declared it a phase-out technology.
“There has been a lack of maintenance for almost ten years,” summarizes Pierre Sellal, who used to be a member of EdF’s board of directors. Similar to the plans in Germany, Hollande wanted to expand renewable energies and gradually take the reactors off the grid. His successor Emmanuel Macron initially did exactly that with the oldest power plant in Fessenheim in Alsace, but then made a U-turn. Now he wants to extend service life and build new reactors.
In the summer, the then EdF boss Jean-Bernard Lévy complained about the political zigzag course of the past few years in order to explain the current problems. “We don’t have enough trained people,” he said. He has since been recalled. He not only left the repair and maintenance work to his successor, the ambitious hobby sailor, in which specialists from the USA are now also involved. The new reactor building in Flamanville in Normandy, which has been going on for 15 years, is not yet finished. The reactor is scheduled to go into operation next year. In the January after next, it could therefore produce electricity.