When Needed Most, France’s Nuclear Plants Can’t Deliver

October 24, 2022

Wall Street Journal:

France is falling behind in its plans to return the country’s fleet of nuclear reactors to full power this winter after a rash of outages, raising fears that one of Europe’s key sources of electricity won’t be ramped up to counter Russia’s squeeze on the continent’s energy supplies.

The nuclear fleet was designed to act as the front line of France’s energy security. Since Moscow cut the flow of natural gas to Europe—plunging the continent into its biggest energy crisis since the 1970s oil shock—France’s vaunted nuclear fleet has been about as effective as the Maginot Line, the French fortifications that did little to stop the German invasion during World War II.

Twenty-six of France’s 56 nuclear reactors are offline for maintenance or because of corrosion on piping that cools the reactor cores. Fixing the corrosion is taking longer than expected at several reactors, delaying their restart by as much as six weeks, according to regulatory filings and a French nuclear executive familiar with the matter.

Labor unrest is another obstacle. Strikes at 18 reactors owned by EDF SA, France’s state-controlled power giant, have delayed their restart by several weeks, threatening the government’s plans to have all of them back online by the end of the winter. EDF and union leaders said they reached an agreement Friday on salary increases, ending the strikes.

“It’s important that this work restarts as soon as possible,” said Emmanuelle Wargon, head of France’s energy regulator. “If not, the risk of not having electricity rises.”

EDF, the world’s largest owner of nuclear plants, is one of Western Europe’s most important power companies. Its fleet of reactors normally exports large quantities of low-cost nuclear power to neighboring countries, helping stabilize prices across the region.

The situation changed drastically this year, when France swung from being one of Europe’s largest exporters of electricity to a net importer because of the outages at its reactors. The rash of outages has officials worried that France and the broader region might run short of electricity in the winter, when power demand in Europe peaks.

Soaring energy prices have fueled labor unrest that is compounding France’s energy problems. A strike by French refinery workers led by the CGT, France’s far-left union, has created gasoline and diesel shortages across the country. The workers are demanding a 10% pay increase to cope with inflation. CGT workers have also led the strike at EDF, demanding a minimum pay increase of €200 a month, or roughly $200.

Virginie Neumayer, a CGT leader at EDF, said their strike has targeted the reactors that were either undergoing maintenance or taken offline for refueling. It hasn’t slowed repairs at around 12 of the reactors that were taken offline because of suspicions of corrosion, Ms. Neumayer said.

Still, two reactors that were shut down to check for corrosion have had their startup dates pushed back by as long as six weeks, according to regulatory notices. One of them, at the Flamanville plant on France’s north coast, was delayed from Oct. 9 to Nov. 26; startup at the other reactor, at the Bugey plant near Lyon, was pushed back from Sept. 30 to Nov. 3.

A French nuclear executive said those delays were the result of unanticipated complications in the repairs. The executive said repairs at the Chooz nuclear plant on the Belgian border were also taking longer than anticipated, jeopardizing a Nov. 13 startup date for the first of the plant’s two reactors. The strike could have an impact on the repairs if workers are diverted to work on maintenance rather than fixing corrosion, the executive said.

An EDF spokeswoman declined to comment on delays to the restart of the French reactors.

The corrosion problem is at the origin of the series of EDF outages this year. A technician discovered the problem late last year at Civaux, France’s youngest nuclear-power plant. The phenomenon, known as stress corrosion, was identified on welds for pipes that are under high pressure near the reactor core, according to France’s Nuclear Safety Authority. Engineers inspected the same section of piping in other reactors and found similar problems.

The issue prompted EDF to accelerate maintenance and refueling of other reactors to ensure that they could be available this winter, given that the availability of the reactors where corrosion was suspected was in doubt.

French nuclear experts have said EDF’s calendar for repairing the reactors is ambitious given the difficulty of the work. Repairs on the corroded pipes must be performed within the radioactive containment area of the plants, limiting the time that welders can spend on the job because of rules limiting their radiation exposure.

Officials believe the corrosion is the result of changes that France made to a reactor design by U.S. company Westinghouse Electric Co. that is the basis for a number of French reactors. The design also underpins the U.K.’s Sizewell B reactor, which is owned by EDF’s British subsidiary, EDF Energy.

EDF Energy is planning to inspect pipes close to Sizewell B’s reactor core when it is shut down for planned maintenance in February, said spokeswoman Marjorie Barnes.

Detecting the phenomenon is difficult because it can incubate for decades without producing warning signs.

“It is only possible to identify its presence once cracking has begun,” according to a note from France’s Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety. “Regular inspections of the pipes can only identify the phenomenon once a fault is present.”

The outages have forced EDF to absorb huge losses because the company was forced to buy replacement power on Europe’s wholesale market, where prices have soared, for sale to retail clients at much lower prices. Last month, the company said the outages would hit pretax earnings this year by around $29 billion. That comes on top of more than $10 billion in losses the company is likely to book because of the French government’s decision to cap retail electricity prices.

The government of President Emmanuel Macron said in July that it would buy the 16% of EDF that the state didn’t already own, at a cost of nearly $10 billion.


One Response to “When Needed Most, France’s Nuclear Plants Can’t Deliver”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Even while not producing, these old nuclear power plants have a pretty high cost of operation. I hope these magical new NPP designs have more favorable operation and maintenance costs to bring in an earlier ROI.

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