So much rest is not what Christophe Comtesse is used to. The turbine normally makes a hell of a noise, explains the technical director of the French nuclear power plant in Penly during a tour. But nothing has been normal in the older of two pressurized water reactors in the north of the country for a long time. It has now been more than 14 months since it last produced electricity. Since then, the turbine has been running in economy mode.
Actually, Penly 1 should only have been off the grid for around six months for routine maintenance work as part of its ten-year test. But then the operating group Électricité de France (EdF) encountered a previously unknown phenomenon of stress corrosion, i.e. material fatigue on the pipes of the cooling circuit. The result: First, extensive investigations were necessary, then the affected pipes had to be re-welded. The work delayed the reactivation of Penly 1 several times.
EdF has recently promised that it will be back in operation in mid-February. Thanks to the help of welders from America, the repair work there was successfully completed at the beginning of December. The neighboring reactor Penly 2, also affected by corrosion, is even supposed to be restarted at the end of January, although the repairs there have not even started and EdF is still waiting for the green light from the nuclear regulatory authority.
It is unclear whether this will go well this winter
The power plant on the Normandy coast symbolizes the crisis into which the French nuclear industry slipped almost a year ago – regardless of the capers on the gas market, but with a view to the Ukraine war that began shortly afterwards at the worst possible time. So far, EdF has had to shut down 16 of 56 reactors due to the corrosion phenomenon, all of which are plants from the latest series.
The nuclear doldrums have far-reaching consequences for the energy supply. Electricity imports from Germany and Belgium have ensured that the lights don’t go out in France in recent months. It is unclear whether this will go well this winter. Every third Frenchman heats with electricity, which drives up consumption. The government in Paris and the power grid operator RTE have therefore already promised the population that, if necessary, controlled shutdowns of around two hours will be necessary.
The network operator simulated it on Friday. As if the extreme case were casting its shadow, parts of Paris were without electricity on Thursday evening. However, the reason was only a breakdown in a transformer, which appeased Enedis’ energy supply.
The French government and EdF are trying to calm the situation given the grim blackout scenarios that are now circulating. Little by little, reactors are now back on the grid, and work is being done day and night, said Luc Rémont on Friday, who recently took over as head of EdF. The workforce is “fully mobilized” and in the process of solving the technical problems. In fact, nuclear power plants are now back on the grid with around 39 of the total 61.4 gigawatts of output, after there were significantly fewer than 30 in the summer.
“All major industrial nations will come back to nuclear energy”
France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, who appeared before the press together with Rémont on Friday in Penly, took the same line. Everything will be done to avoid power cuts and to bring the available capacity of the power plant park back to 45 gigawatts in January, he said – i.e. to a slightly higher level than the network operator recently forecast in its core scenario.
For the government of President Emmanuel Macron, Penly is not only a repair shop, but also a linchpin of the nuclear renaissance, which was proclaimed almost at the same time as the corrosion problems became known. Two pressurized water reactors of the latest generation are to be built here on the coast.
The construction site on the 230-hectare site is ready, an expansion was originally planned in the 1990s and also under President Nicolas Sarkozy. The preparatory work is scheduled to begin in 2024 and the main work in 2027 for completion in 2035 – if you believe the information from EdF, which has been working on plans for the expansion for around three years.
“The decision for nuclear energy is a decision for the climate,” said Le Maire after the site visit on Friday. They want to accelerate the expansion of renewable energies, but in view of the enormous future demand for decarbonized electricity, they also want to build new reactors and new types of small mini-reactors. With the help of EdF, in the words of the minister not just one, but the global champion for the production and sale of energy, this can succeed.
Massive investments are now being made in the training of new specialists and lessons will be learned from the mistakes made in Flamanville, where a new reactor has been under construction since 2007. Le Maire was convinced: “All major industrial nations will come back to nuclear energy”, including in Europe.