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French Nuclear Power Crisis Frustrates Europe’s Push to Quit Russian Energy

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Mark Silverstone's picture
Principal, JMP Services AS

30+ years in Oil & Gas Industry Field of Interest: Environmental issues in general; waste management issues in particular. 

  • Member since 2002
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  • Jun 21, 2022

France’s nuclear power generating industry is often cited as a success story of what is possible with a commitment to nuclear technology. Those who tout France’s nuclear development as a model to be emulated will have a hard time rationalizing the present ongoing failure of that system.

According to this:

"Around half of France’s atomic fleet, the largest in Europe, has been taken offline as a storm of unexpected problems swirls around the nation’s state-backed nuclear power operator, Électricité de France, or EDF."

The failures could not have come at a worse time.  Those who think that nuclear power provides affordable, reliable, safe  low carbon power might want to think again:

"As the European Union moves to cut ties to Russian oil and gas in the wake of Moscow’s war on Ukraine, France has been betting on its nuclear plants to weather a looming energy crunch. Nuclear power provides about 70 percent of France’s electricity, a bigger share than any other country in the world.But the industry has tumbled into an unprecedented power crisis as EDF confronts troubles ranging from the mysterious emergence of stress corrosion inside nuclear plants to a hotter climate that is making it harder to cool the aging reactors."

"The outages at EDF, Europe’s biggest electricity exporter, have sent France’s nuclear power output tumbling to its lowest level in nearly 30 years, pushing French electric bills to record highs just as the war in Ukraine is stoking broader inflation."

"France faces the unsettling prospect of initiating rolling blackouts this winter and having to import power."

The future of France’s nuclear industry does not appear to be a bright:

"EDF, already 43 billion euros (about $45 billion) in debt, is also exposed to a recent deal involving the Russian state-backed nuclear power operator, Rosatom, that may heap fresh financial pain on the French company. The troubles have ballooned so quickly that President Emmanuel Macron’s government has hinted that EDF may need to be nationalized."

Nationalization? That means that taxpayers get the bill.

As everywhere else, new French installations suffer huge cost overruns and/or long delays.

"An EDF-made pressurized water reactor at Hinkley Point, in southwest England, won’t start operating until 2027 — four years behind schedule and too late to help Britain’s swift turn from Russian oil and gas. Finland’s newest EDF nuclear power plant, which started operating last month, was supposed to be completed in 2009."

And, as pointed out on June 16 in Energy Central, France´s newest "next generation" generator, Flamanville 3:

"...was originally expected to cost 3.3 billion euros and start operations in 2012."

"It is now due to start loading fuel - one of the final stages before the start up of a plant - in the second quarter of 2023, and at the latest count the estimated cost had risen to 12.7 billion euros."

In existing plants, there are serious safety issues:

"Inspections unearthed alarming safety issues — especially corrosion and faulty welding seals on crucial systems used to cool a reactor’s radioactive core. That was the situation at the Chinon atomic plant, one of France’s oldest, which produces 6 percent of EDF’s nuclear power."

"EDF is now scouring all its nuclear facilities for such problems. A dozen reactors will stay disconnected for corrosion inspections or repairs that could take months or years. Another 16 remain offline for reviews and upgrades."

"Others are having to cut power production because of climate change concerns: Rivers in the south of France, including the Rhône and the Gironde, are warming earlier each year, often reaching temperatures in the spring and summer too warm to cool reactors."

And what about nuclear’s vaunted reliability?

"Today, French nuclear production is at its lowest level since 1993, generating less than half the 61.4 gigawatts that the fleet is capable of producing…Even if some reactors resume in the summer, French nuclear output will be 25 percent lower than usual this winter — with alarming consequences."

So much for the French "model."

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Jun 21, 2022

This is not necessarily to praise nuclear power, in France or elsewhere.  But at least some of the French troubles are related to warming river water, as in

and they may eventually figure out a solution to it, or switch to helium cooling.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jun 22, 2022

Thanks for providing that reference  Julian. Do you know of any nuclear plants that have switched to helium cooling and what it requires in time and money? 

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Jun 22, 2022

No. It was considered during the early development of nuclear power. The source details the market for helium, discussing the competing uses. The closest to any sort of reasonable guess, and it is not good, is at - see especially pp. 80-85. They are extremely optimistic. My guess for a refit would be in the neighborhood of $3.5 billion for a typical water-cooled plant, about 70% the cost of completely new construction, since you wouldn't have to make land purchases and at least some of the machinery, such as the reactor rods, could be used. But that is just a completely random guess - odds are it will be higher. But if nothing is done, the hot water problem will get worse, and the value that would have remained from the output if there were no water problem will be lost. I would mention that Stanford has experimented with helium cooling for their VHTR reactors, but all their sites seem to be down. The closest to a usable explanation for that is at - there will apparently be a British demonstration project involving the general ideas. The closest to a commercially ready product appears to be at General Atomics has been one of the industry leaders for nuclear power since its inception, and it may be possible to infer costs for retrofit from them. But I do think the process, for at least some plants, can be done in this decade and not wait until 2040.

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Jun 22, 2022

Let me just add one brief thought to this note. Hardcore renewable advocates will laugh at this cost for nuclear with helium, and argue that the solution is obvious: drop nuclear power altogether and go to renewables. has a good description of the French energy system, and the share of renewables such as solar and wind is quite low - "In the European Union in 2018, France was in sixteenth position for the share of renewable energy in gross final energy consumption. "

But you want to be extremely careful in throwing people's lives away. Saving the dignity and livelihood, to the extent possible, of people who work in the nuclear industry, or their families, or who support it, has a value. Any wrenching change, such as is typically envisioned, is a last resort. Above all, you want people to be as sure as possible that they are being treated fairly. To do this, you want a good and careful argument, with reasonable assurance that everything possible to save them is being tried, that they are not being disposed of with contempt for some supposedly higher purpose. If this is not done, you can easily get a backlash to produce far worse policy than if no change in the energy mix occurs at all. In France, as in the U.S., there is tremendous political polarization. Any reasonable forecast of what can happen has to take this polarization, and its likely worsening, into account.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jun 25, 2022

Thanks for your thoughtful and pertinent comments Julian. And please excuse my (probably too) lengthy reply.

I share your concern for the thousands of highly competent nuclear industry engineers whose livelihoods are threatened.  And your point about backlash is well taken. I know more than a few engineers who have made the transition from the nuclear to the oil and gas industry, quite successfully.  And now their livelihoods are again under threat by the outlook for that industry.  I live in Norway where we are grappling with the anticipated sunset on that industry, one that transformed our society mostly in highly favorable ways.  While some presently producing gas fields are likely to produce until 2070, there is a strong push to cease exploration efforts to find more fossil fuels. I believe we are not far from that.  The result will be the painful demise of the careers of thousands of people.  It may well be that many will find a new career in offshore wind, but in nowhere near the numbers and skill sets appropriate for most.

The fault does not usually lie at the feet of the people who will be most affected.  In the case of France, their nuclear industry has long been held up as a great example of how nuclear works to generate an abundance of a reasonably priced, safe and reliable source of power in a country without oil and gas assets.  It is disappointing, to say the least, that the French system has not stood the test of time.  There are lessons that must be learned from that. 

The nuclear industry is not well served by their lobbying and other industry leaders.  They stubbornly insist on absurd falsehoods such as those regarding the management of nuclear waste, the effects of disasters such as Fukushima,  the cost effectiveness of present day nuclear generation and the purported zero carbon emissions of the nuclear generation life cycle.  And of course they have been found guilty of lying to and bribing public officials to further their aims.

But the fact remains that it is indeed a wrenching change, no matter what the outcome.  We already see the trauma experienced by workers in the coal industry.  I believe it is the responsibility and in the interest of government to help ease the transition.  After all, many countries are experiencing skilled and unskilled labor shortages.  Our workforce,  especially skilled nuclear industry workers, are a resource, not a burden.  By no means do I take lightly the dignity and livelihood of those people.

Much of the same is true of the oil and gas industry. Though it may not appear so at the present moment because of the war in Ukraine, the oil and gas industry will experience in years to come the “stranding” of assets, i.e. discovered and developed reservoirs representing huge investments for which there are no customers. The boom and bust cycle will still persist for some time. But it will come to an end in a “bust” cycle. It will not be pretty.

However, there are counter currents.  There will be for many more years, if not forever, the need for some oil and gas for manufacturing plastic, lubricants and other products.  And, there is still a possibility that CCS will become a sensible proposition.  Oil is useful and appropriate for many purposes. But burning it in huge quantities is not likely to be one of them.

Regarding the nuclear industry, there will still be applications for the technology. We have yet to see how it turns out for small modular reactors that, supposedly, can be mass produced,  though it will be at least another 10 years before we know. And there will be a need for many years for small reactors for specialized applications for medicine and, unfortunately, defense purposes.  Here is another possibility, i.e., the use of small reactors (“…from five megawatts, up to around 70…”) for powering offshore desalination plants.  And brand new nuclear technologies are in serious development.  I have no idea what to believe about whether any of those ideas will come to fruition.

And, of course, there is the perennial hope/dream for fusion.

Consider for a moment the transition from film to digital photography.  Personally, I miss a great deal about using film for taking photos.  In fact, many desirable aspects of analog recording of sound and images have been lost to digitization, though they survive to some extent with “niche” users for some purposes. The same will likely apply to the nuclear industry, barring game changing technological developments. In any case, societies  must devise much better ways to adapt to paroxysms associated with the displacement of giant industries by massive technological changes.  Because many more are coming.

But for now, the momentum is clearly in the direction of renewables: hydro, wind, solar, geothermal, biological.

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Jun 28, 2022

All this is true and sad.  The Union of Concerned Scientists is very anti-nuclear, and has argued strenuously against helium-cooled nuclear reactors of all types.  I don't want to be pigeon-holed as a nuclear backer, or a fossil-fuel backer, either, just someone who appreciates the people involved, and doesn't want them hurt.  I keep thinking that renewables and fossil-fuel could be combined to mutual benefit.

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jun 29, 2022

Yes, it is as you say Julian.  I do think that vibrant, liberal economies need to, and must, learn, to some extent at least, to manage these turbulent times and to take care of the people who are displaced by these major changes and, also,  to direct the energies and skills of its workforce to the benefit of all.

I have my doubts that "capitalism", at least as we know it, is up to the task. It may well be, indeed, the test and the main theme of the history of these times.

Mark Silverstone's picture
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