French Nuclear Power Crisis Frustrates Europe’s Push to Quit Russian Energy

PARIS – Two reactors above the steam tops of Plumes recently hit the Chinon nuclear power plant in the heart of France’s Verdant Loire Valley. But there is a third reactor above the skies that is unusually clear – its cooling system in the crack of worrisome discovery after its operations are frozen.

The Partial Shutdown Is Unique: Around half of France’s atomic fleet, the largest in Europe, has been taken offline as a nation’s state-backed nuclear power operator around the Swirls, Électricité de France, or EDF.

As the European Union moves to cut ties to Moscow’s war on Russian oil and gas, France has been betting on its nuclear plants to weather a looming energy crunch. Nuclear power provides about 70 percent of France’s electricity, more than any other country in the world.

But the industry has tumbled into an unprecedented power crisis as EDF confronts troubles ranging from the mysterious emergence of stress to the corrosion of nuclear plants to a hotter climate.

The outages at EDF, Europe’s largest electricity exporter, have sent France’s nuclear power tumbling to its lowest level in nearly 30 years, pushing French electric bills to record highs just as the war in Ukraine is stoking broader inflation. Instead of pumping vast amounts of electricity to Britain, Italy and other European countries pivoting from Russian oil, France faces the unsettling prospect of rolling blackouts this winter and having imported power.

EDF, already in debt of about 43 billion euros ($ 45 billion) The troubles have ballooned so quickly that President Emmanuel Macron’s government has hinted that the EDF may need to be nationalized.

“We can’t rule it out,” Agnès Pannier-Runacher, the minister for energy transition, said Tuesday. “We are going to need huge investments in EDF.”

The crunch could not have been worse at hit time. Oil prices touched record highs after the European Union agreed to cut off Russian oil, adding to Europe’s intensifying economic pains and addressing a cost-of-living crisis in France and other countries. The price of natural gas, which uses nuclear-powered energy in fluctuations, has also been surged.

Europe’s energy considerations, nuclear energy’s advocates say, can help bridge Europe’s fuel deficit, complementing a shift that already has to adapt to wind, solar and other renewable energy to meet ambitious climate-change targets.

The EDF will not be easy at the crisis.

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

But the French nuclear industry, mostly built in the 1980s, has been plagued by a slew of new investments. Experts say it has lost valuable engineering expertise as people retired or moved on, with EDF’s ability to replicate existing power stations – or build ones to replace them.

“EDF’s strategy, endorsed by the government, was to delay the reinvestment and transformation of the system,” said Yves Marignac, a nuclear energy specialist at NégaWatt, a think tank in Paris. “The more 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 blueprint to rebuild France’s nuclear program. EDF would construct the first of up to 14 mammoth next-generation pressurized water reactors by 2035, as well as smaller nuclear plants – a cornerstone of a broader effort to reinforce France’s energy independence and meet climate goals.

But the few new nuclear reactors that the EDF has built have been dogged by huge cost overruns and delays. An EDF-made pressurized water reactor at Hinkley Point, southwest England, will not start operating until 2027 – four years behind schedule and too late to help Britain’s swift turn from Russian oil and gas. Finland’s newest EDF nuclear power plant, which began operating last month, was completed in 2009.

EDF’s recent troubles began with mounting just before Russia invaded Ukraine. The company warned last winter that it could no longer produce a steady nuclear power supply, as it struggled to catch up to a two-year backlog of required maintenance for aging reactors that were put off during coronavirus lockdowns.

Inspections Unearthed Alarming Safety Issues – Particularly corrosion and faulty welding seals are used on systems to cool a reactor’s radioactive core. That was the situation at the Chinon Atomic Plant, one of France’s oldest, which produces 6 percent of EDF’s nuclear power.

EDF is now scouring all its nuclear facilities for such problems. A dozen reactors will remain disconnected for corrosion inspections or repairs that could take months or years. Reviews and upgrades for another 16 remain offline.

Climate change concerns: Rhône and the Gironde

Today, French nuclear production is at its lowest level since 1993, generating less than half the 61.4 gigawatts that the fleet is capable of producing. (EDF also generates electricity with renewable technologies, gas and coal.) Even if some reactors are in the summer, French nuclear output will be 25 percent lower than usual this winter.

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

The government, which owns 84 percent of the EDF, has added to the strife. As market electricity prices neared € 500 per megawatt-hour last winter, Mr. Macron ordered EDF to increase the power it sells to third-party providers at a capped price of just € 46 per megawatt-hour.

While the nuclear power plants are offline, EDF has been forced to buy high-cost electricity at the open market, at a projected cost of over € 10 billion this year. The move is so infuriated that the EDF’s combative chief executive, Jean-Bernard Lévy, made a formal appeal to the government.

With turmoil mounting, the French government threw EDF a € 2 billion lifeline in February. But that is hardly enough to resolve its woes.

The debt-laden company also faces risks associated with a government-backed deal with Rosatom, a longtime customer of EDF components and the biggest buyer of powerful French-made Arabelle steam turbines, which are found in both Rosatom and EDF nuclear plants.

Instead of war, France has done business as usual with nuclear power in Russia, which has exempted European Union sanctions. Mr. Macron’s February back-to-back EDF acquires the Arabelle turbine business, valued at € 1.1 billion, from General Electric, restoring the manufacturing firm GE bought it from Alstom in 2015.

EDF is now seeking a lower valuation of the amid fears that Rosatom’s business may stumble, after which Finland last month canceled Rosatom contracts for new nuclear plants. Should Rosatom face additional cancellations or building delays in other countries, EDF could face turbine orders and fresh losses in a slump.

A recent analysis by JPMorgan Chase said that for the new nuclear plants to recover, the country’s best bet is to build a fleet of planes with a stick.

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

Adèle Cordonnier contributed reporting.

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