France’s nuclear power strategy is facing major challenges this winter | Whuff News

French Energy Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher said last month that EDF was committed to restarting all of its nuclear reactors this winter.

Jean-marie Hosatte | Gamma-rapho | Getty Images

France is facing a winter of discontent, energy analysts say, as serious problems with its nuclear power plan raise serious questions about its readiness for the colder months.

A long-standing source of national pride, France generates about 70% of its electricity from a fleet of 56 nuclear reactors, all operated by the state-owned EDF.

It made France home to the world’s largest group of reactors after the US and ensured that Paris was less exposed than its neighbors to the dramatic reduction in Russian gas supplies.

However, more than half of EDF’s nuclear power plants have been shut down due to corrosion problems, maintenance and technical issues in recent months, thanks in part to extreme heat waves and delays in maintenance due to the Covid pandemic. The blackout caused France’s electricity to drop to a 30-year low as the European Union faces its worst energy crisis in decades.

“I find the French nuclear relationship very interesting because it clearly shows all the positives and negatives of nuclear power,” Norbert Ruecker, head of economics and next-generation research at Julius Baer, ​​told CNBC by phone.

“Yes, it’s low carbon but it’s not economical. You have to add EDF to make it happen. Yes, it gives baseload but wait a second, sometimes the whole plant disappears for weeks and months, so the promise of baseload is not really there.” Ruecker said.

A bitterly cold winter after a bitterly cold summer will test the country’s electricity.

Mujtaba Rahman

European managing director of the Eurasia Group

French Energy Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher said last month that EDF was committed to restarting all nuclear reactors this winter, Reuters reported, with shutdown reactors reopening every week from October.

French grid operator RTE, meanwhile, said there is no risk of a total blackout this winter but some power cuts during peak demand cannot be ruled out.

“Most of the nuclear power plants should be back online before winter, so basically in November or December. So, if you trust the operator of the French grid, things will be fine,” said Ruecker.

“There has to be some conservatism about whether France will be able to get these weapons back in time, but we shouldn’t be too pessimistic. The record shows that they have arrived on time or less.”

Is it the ‘winter of discontent’?

French electricity prices rose to an all-time high this summer, reaching eye-watering levels of around 1,100 euros ($1,073) per megawatt hour at the end of August. Analysts fear the country could struggle to produce enough nuclear power to support its own needs and those of its neighbors in the coming months.

Embracing structural problems in the country’s nuclear fleet, France not only lost its position as Europe’s biggest power exporter this year but also, surprisingly, actually imported more power than it exported.

Data from energy analysts EnAppSys published in July found that Sweden holds the top spot as Europe’s largest energy exporter during the first six months of 2022. and analysts at EnAppSys warned the situation showed “no signs of improvement any time soon.”

To pay, France bought expensive electricity from the UK, Germany, Spain and elsewhere.

“Thanks to the market, thanks to the power lines we have, Europe has saved France from the big black” this summer, Julius Baer’s Ruecker said.

“It was the UK, Germany, Spain and Switzerland all intervened. So, for me, this past month has just revealed one of the political rhetoric that has not always been objective,” he added, referring to the speech. nuclear power as a climate solution within politics.

France did not lose its position as the largest exporter of electricity in Europe this year but also, remarkably, imported more energy than it exported.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In an attempt to protect homes and businesses in the coming months, the administration of President Emmanuel Macron last month announced plans to reduce energy consumption and increase gas prices by 15% next year.

It represents a big jump from this year when the incremental cost of electricity for homes and small businesses reached 4% and gas at 0%.

Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said the increased funding – the most generous in the EU – could add to the French government’s difficulties in dealing with the financial and budget battle.

“A lot will depend on two things,” Rahman said in a research note. “First, the success of the government’s program to reduce electricity consumption (which will be voluntary for households and compulsory for public and business organizations). Second, the weather. A severe winter after a very bad and hot summer will test the country’s electricity capacity to the limit.”

Currently, we maintain 65% of our base that Macron will dissolve the National Assembly next year, but only if he believes that his coalition has a strong chance of regaining the majority, although it is under low pressure if France suffers. a cold and troublesome winter,” Rahman said.

“The winter of discontent is not in preparation for the election.”

What does it mean for Europe?

France’s ailing energy industry has fueled criticism of its nuclear power plan at a time when many others in Europe are turning to nuclear power instead of failing Russian gas.

Germany, which had originally planned to shut down its three remaining reactors by the end of the year, has decided to delay decommissioning its nuclear power plants this winter. The UK, meanwhile, wants to increase its nuclear power, and the EU has listed nuclear power among its list of “green” investments.

“It is important to say that if France has a nuclear problem, Europe has a problem as well in terms of electricity,” Alexandre Danthine, senior partner in the French energy market at Aurora Energy Research, told CNBC by phone.

“They are, in general, exporters, but in winter they need energy from neighboring countries to meet the needs – whatever the situation,” said Danthine.

At the start of his presidency, Macron committed to reducing the share of nuclear power in France’s energy mix.

Ludovic Marin | Afp | Getty Images

In France, the Eurasia Group’s Rahman said, Macron responded angrily last month to suggestions, including from outgoing EDF chief Jean-Bernard Levy, that his “retirement approach” to nuclear power over the past five years was part of the problem.

In what was widely seen as a policy U-turn, Macron announced in February his intention for France to build at least six nuclear weapons in the coming decades, with an option for eight more. At the beginning of his presidency, Macron was committed to reducing the share of nuclear power in the country’s energy mix.

The pushback controversially placed nuclear power at the heart of France’s drive to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century.

Proponents of nuclear power say it has the potential to play a major role in helping countries generate electricity while reducing carbon emissions and reducing their reliance on fossil fuels.

For critics of the energy source, however, nuclear power is a costly distraction from faster, cheaper and cleaner alternatives. Instead, environmental campaign groups argue technologies such as wind and solar should be prioritized over a planned shift to renewable energy sources.

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