Gas Crunch, War, Spotlight Europe’s Nuclear Conundrum

May 31, 2022

Financial Times: (paywall)

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.


Europe’s biggest producer of atomic energy, which usually exports cheap power during the winter, may be forced to import this year after cutting its output forecast a third time. A fleet hobbled by faults is not just a problem for France but for countries such as neighboring Germany, which may have to burn more gas to keep the lights on despite pledging to cut its reliance on Moscow.

“We have a French problem which is taking place at the wrong time, given the geopolitical situation,” said Nicolas Leclerc, co-founder of Paris-based energy consultant Omnegy. “The whole European equilibrium may be threatened.”

Countries across the region are rushing to secure alternative gas supplies following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. That’s a tall order for nations such as Germany, which relied on Russia for 40% of its supply last year and is shutting down its own nuclear industry. Although the country plans to buy up large amounts of liquefied gas, it doesn’t yet have import terminals of its own.

“France will require that all adjacent countries have ways to produce electricity,” Leclerc said. “It’s important for us that Germany isn’t too much at odds with Russia. If they don’t have access to Russian gas, they won’t be able to produce the electricity we need.”

Germany said Tuesday it would bring back coal- and oil-fired power plants in the event that gas supplies fall short. But Europe is also dependent on Russia for much of its thermal coal, with Germany particularly reliant.

Power imports into France aren’t unprecedented. Electricity flowed to the nation over three months last winter as its atomic output declined. But this year there’ll be less gas available across Europe to pick up the slack. With supply concerns mounting, French peakload power prices for the first quarter of 2023 have climbed above 1,000 euros a megawatt-hour.

France will import “heavily” this winter, and grid operator RTE may need to limit power supply to large industrial users, according to Jean-Paul Harreman, director of consultant EnAppSys BV. “A nightmare scenario would consist of a dry summer, resulting in low water reserves in the Alps, Iberia, Balkans and Scandinavia, and a prolonged cold spell across Europe, driving up demand.”

About half of EDF’s 56 reactors are currently halted, and EDF has estimated that output this year will be the lowest in more than 30 years. While many plants are offline for regular maintenance or refueling, a dozen are idled for checks and repairs following the discovery of stress-corrosion issues at units in late 2021. Cracks have been confirmed in key piping systems at four reactors.

EDF has estimated the financial cost of the problems at about 18.5 billion euros ($19.8 billion) this year, since it has to buy back the production shortfall on the market with prices near record-highs.

The utility’s challenges are now so great that President Emmanuel Macron has suggested some of its key activities could be nationalized as part of a broader plan to bolster the country’s energy independence. Macron has also pledged support for a raft of new reactors — with the first one coming online around 2035 — in a bid to reinvigorate France’s nuclear industry.

Meanwhile, in Germany, It’s a mirror image crisis. Having shut down several nuclear plants – some say prematurely – they may have to restart coal plants if power supplies become critical this winter.


Germany plans to bring back coal- and oil-fired power plants should Russia cut off natural gas shipments to Europe’s largest economy.

Economy Minister Robert Habeck will on Tuesday present an emergency decree enabling the government to bring back the facilities in case of gas shortages, according to the proposed legislation seen by Bloomberg.

Germany is resorting to desperate measures to keep the lights on and its massive industrial parks running, turning to dirty fuels even if that means a surge in carbon emissions. The nation has almost six gigawatts of facilities that are currently part of a national reserve, many of which were supposed to be closed down as part of the coal phase-out plan.

“This request for additional coal-fired power generation only occurs when there is a gas shortage, or if there is a threat of a gas shortage and the gas consumption in power generation has to be reduced,” according to the proposed law. 


One Response to “Gas Crunch, War, Spotlight Europe’s Nuclear Conundrum”

  1. John Oneill Says:

    The older, 900MW French reactors appear to be free from the cracks affecting the newer 1300 and 1450 MW models. It’s a shame, then, that after the closure of the two 900 MW reactors at Fessenheim (despite them having recently had a major upgrade), the primary circuit was flushed with a strong acid, rendering them permanently unusable. The four gigawatts of German reactors that were shut down on 31 Dec 2021 have not been given this aggressive treatment, and could still be restarted, to provide firm 24/7 power alongside the surviving four GW due for the axe next 31 Dec. Despite this, the alleged ‘Greens’ running the Energy Ministry there would rather bring mothballed coal plants back into action.
    Decouple podcast – So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance? Germany’s Nuclear Wobble

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