As most of Europe struggles to end the continent’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels, one country might seem to have good reason to feel less anxious than most: nuclear-friendly France.
The country’s longstanding reliance on nuclear power means Paris has faced few of the difficult decisions made by countries such as Germany, which is exposed to the economic blowback of an abrupt exit from Russian gas.
But a series of maintenance issues including corrosion at some of France’s ageing reactors, troubles at state-controlled energy group EDF and a years-long absence of significant new nuclear investment are sapping supply and casting doubts on whether nuclear will insulate France from the troubles of its neighbours. Half of France’s 56 reactors are offline — a record — with 12 of those shut down because of corrosion inspections.
“There’s a whole series of problems that have led to an absolutely unprecedented level of difficulties and shutdowns in France’s nuclear industry,” said Yves Marignac, a nuclear energy specialist at think-tank négaWatt.
The corrosion issues capped a 10-year decline in the performance of the nuclear fleet, he added.
The outages could not have come at a worse time. Surging global oil and gas demand as Covid-19 lockdowns lifted, followed by supply chain disruptions and unfavourable weather that depleted renewable energy production combined last year to spark an energy crisis in Europe. The Ukraine war has added to the pressure.
The corrosion, which caused cracks in the pipes of a back-up water injection system, could take years to fix, France’s nuclear watchdog said last week.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, French president Emmanuel Macron promised in February to restart France’s “nuclear adventure”, unveiling a €52bn plan to build new reactors in a strategy partly aimed at cutting the country’s carbon emissions while providing energy security.
France derived 69 per cent of its electricity output from atomic power last year. The outages have cut that to 59 per cent — hitting state-controlled energy group EDF’s finances.
The debt-laden group has been forced to buy power on wholesale markets just as the Ukraine war sends prices soaring, and has said it expects an €18.5bn hit to its core profits this year as a result, on top of another €10.2bn from energy price cap measures imposed by the government.
Repeated delays and cost overruns on two flagship next-generation European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) projects in France and Britain have also given EDF a reputation for being unable to make novel nuclear technologies on time and on budget.
“There’s a fundamental problem around EDF, shown by the recurring issues on too many different topics and which have been going on for too long,” said Denis Florin of energy consultancy Lavoisier. “That has made EDF a target for critics who question what [taxpayers and investors] would pour billions into.”
However, France has little wriggle-room as it plans for a less carbon intensive future. Like EU neighbours it aims to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But despite investment, it lags behind European neighbours in building solar and wind power due to bureaucracy and its long reliance on nuclear energy.
The energy crisis has added to the urgency. Macron had initially appeared agnostic on nuclear, overseeing the shutdown of one plant in 2018 as it reached the end of its life. But now he has doubled down on atomic power.
When announcing the six planned new EPRs, which would replace existing ageing reactors, in February, the president said another eight could follow. He also unveiled a plan to extend the lifespan of all nuclear plants past the standard 40 years where possible, effectively abandoning his previous goal of cutting France’s reliance on nuclear energy to 50 per cent by 2035.
“The time for our nuclear renaissance is here,” he said in a speech at a nuclear reactor turbine factory in eastern France.
Europe is also reliant on French output. France was the region’s biggest net exporter of power last year, supplying neighbours such as Italy and Germany — despite the latter shutting down its own nuclear industry over environmental concerns.
“When you see plans for gas and coal plant closures, we’re going to need French nuclear power even more in the European system by 2030,” said Valérie Faudon, the executive director of Sfen, a science-based group that promotes the nuclear industry.
Macron now faces a series of hurdles to get construction of the new plants going by the end of his second term in 2027 and on target for a 2035 start-up.
His first challenge will be securing another majority in legislative elections in June. Left-leaning candidates, including some anti-nuclear proponents, have formed an alliance to maximise their chances of denying him one, although polls show that is unlikely.
France will also have to wrangle over a new EU regulatory framework for the sector, with discussions that could begin this year, and is braced for a European Parliament vote in July over whether to label nuclear energy as green, which would unlock investment.
EDF has said it is ready to build the new reactors. But the industry is facing shortages of skilled staff, including welders and engineers, after many left the sector because of a dearth of projects in recent years.
“You’d see young people on job forums saying ‘why not work in the nuclear industry’ and others would reply saying, ‘don’t, you’ll lose your job’,” Faudon said. “At least now . . . there is good news with the new reactor announcements.”