As Europe quits Russian gas, half of France’s nuclear plants are offline

File image of the Gravelines nuclear power plant is seen across the beach in Petit Fort Philippe, northern France, March 10, 2017. (Reuters/Pascal Rossignol)

File image of the Gravelines nuclear power plant is seen across the beach in Petit Fort Philippe, northern France, March 10, 2017. (Reuters/Pascal Rossignol)

Liz Alderman

PARIS — An army of engineers has fanned out through nuclear power plants across France in recent months, inspecting reactors for signs of wear and tear. Hundreds of expert welders have been recruited to repair problems found in cooling circuits. Stress tests are being conducted to check for safety problems.

As Europe braces for a winter without Russian gas, France is moving fast to repair a series of problems plaguing its atomic fleet. A record 26 of its 56 reactors are offline for maintenance or repairs after the worrisome discovery of cracks and corrosion in some pipes used to cool reactor cores.

The crisis is upending the role that France has long played as Europe’s biggest producer of nuclear energy, raising questions about how much its nuclear power arsenal will be able to help bridge the continent’s looming crunch.

The state-backed nuclear power operator, Électricité de France, or EDF, which runs France’s nuclear power industry, said last week that it was working on an accelerated schedule to get all but 10 reactors running again by January, adding that there were no safety risks and that regulators were monitoring every step. President Emmanuel Macron’s government has been pressing the company to improve performance before freezing weather sets in.

“We were faced with an unprecedented situation and have gotten past the worst,” Regis Clement, EDF’s deputy general manager of nuclear production, said at a briefing. “We are doing our best to play a role in the energy crisis,” he added.

The troubles facing EDF — a fresh outbreak of safety-related incidents, combined with unforeseen delays to the company’s repair schedule — could not be hitting at a worse time. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tactic of withholding energy to punish countries supporting Ukraine is pushing Europe to transform how it generates and saves power. Countries are banding together to stock additional power supplies, while pushing out major conservation programs.

Europe’s energy security remains on a thin edge, creating a sense of urgency in France to get its nuclear power program back on track. Macron’s government this month introduced a measure in parliament to speed up an ambitious plan to build six mammoth reactors starting in 2028, moving to fulfil a pledge for what he called a French “nuclear renaissance.”

France pivoted to nuclear power in the 1980s and, after the United States, boasts the world’s biggest atomic fleet, generating 70 percent of its electricity and exporting power to other countries. That has made France historically less dependent on Russian gas than neighbouring Germany.

But France’s nuclear power crunch has become so acute that Macron is preparing to have the government take over the remaining 16 percent of EDF that it doesn’t already own, at a cost of nearly 10 billion euros ($ 10.3 billion).

The company, which is nearly 45 billion euros in debt, has tumbled further into financial difficulty and announced that its 2022 profit would drop by 29 billion euros because of the problems with its reactors, as well as a government effort to force EDF to provide artificially cheap electricity for households and businesses.

Even as EDF is rushing to comply with the demand for accelerated repairs, the company last week cut its 2022 nuclear power production forecast. The announcement caused the cost of French and European electricity to spike.

Herculean efforts to repair corrosion in pipes that cool the cores of four reactors were taking longer than expected, the company said. Those reactors now will not restart until January or February.

A strike late last month by French nuclear plant workers demanding higher wages to keep up with inflation was another blow. EDF said it was already behind in performing required maintenance on several aging reactors because of coronavirus lockdowns when the labour action put it further behind.

The company’s recent troubles began late last year as it started moving through that backlog. The inspections unearthed alarming safety issues — especially corrosion and micro-cracks in systems that cool a reactor’s radioactive core — at an older-generation nuclear reactor in southwest France called Civaux 1. As EDF scoured its nuclear facilities, it found that 16 reactors, most of them newer-generation models, faced similar risks and closed them down.

Officials suspect that the corrosion resulted from changes that EDF made to reactors designed by Westinghouse Electric Co. that EDF had used in its older-generation plants. Bernard Doroszczuk, the head of France’s Nuclear Safety Authority, testified to French lawmakers this summer that the modifications, used for later-generation reactors, appeared to have caused abnormal corrosion and stress on critical cooling pipes.

The crisis has sent French nuclear power production to a 30-year low, generating less than half of the 61 gigawatts that the reactors can produce. (EDF also generates electricity with gas, coal and renewable technologies.) Even when more reactors are restarted in the coming months, French nuclear output will be around 45 gigawatts — lower than usual this winter, compounding the impact of Russia’s gas cut-off.

The situation “increases the risk of supply shortages for the coming winter, with availability standing at record low levels for this time of the year,” Fabian Ronningen, a senior analyst at Rystad Energy, an independent consultancy, said in a note to clients.

The energy shortfall has turned France, once the continent’s biggest exporter of energy, into a net importer this year. One-quarter of Europe’s electricity comes from nuclear power plants in about a dozen countries, with France producing more than half the total.

The country finds itself in the awkward position this winter of leaning more heavily on its coal-fired power stations, importing electricity from Germany and relying on natural gas reserves stocked in a warren of underground caves to get through the winter.

To save power, Macron’s government is pressing ahead with France’s biggest energy conservation measures in decades, part of a broader effort in Europe. The plan calls on citizens and businesses to make major lifestyle changes, including lowering thermostats, carpooling and cutting lighting after hours.

Analysts say that a likely recession in Europe next year, although unwelcome, could help lower energy demand by leading energy-intensive businesses to cut production. The power squeeze has already forced steel, chemical and glass makers to slash output and furlough workers in France and elsewhere in Europe.

But France will still need to repair its reactors, most of which were built in the 1980s, and that have been marred for decades by a lack of investment. Experts say France has lost valuable engineering expertise over the years, with repercussions for EDF’s ability to maintain the existing power stations.

As part of its broader repair and maintenance effort, EDF said it has brought on hundreds of skilled engineers to make up for a dearth of hands in France’s nuclear workforce. The experts include welders and pipe fitters from Westinghouse, as well as from French and Canadian contractors.

But even critical repairs must be monitored. EDF said a radioactive leak occurred this month during a hydraulic test on the main cooling circuit of the Civaux 1 nuclear power plant. EDF had spent months labouring to repair the corroded cooling pipes, using new technologies including ultrasound and welding robots that don’t have radiation exposure limits.

EDF said there was no safety risk from that leak and that no radioactivity was detected outside of it. But the episode is likely to delay the plant’s reopening beyond a planned January 8 date, adding to the nuclear park’s woes.

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