In France, a nuclear country, so many power plants are standing still that the lack of electricity is also being followed with concern in Berlin. Paris calls for solidarity with Germany to get through the winter.
Nuclear power is part of the national self-image in France, but rows of reactors that have been shut down for maintenance are now giving the country a serious supply problem just before the winter crisis.
While there are appeals to the population to economize, combined with the warning that there is no risk of blackout, the government is putting pressure on the majority-owned electricity company EDF to get the nuclear power plants back on the grid as quickly as possible. Paris is also looking to join forces with Berlin in order to jointly overcome electricity and gas bottlenecks. On the border with Saarland, France will also be putting a coal-fired power plant back into operation next week.
As an explanation for the fact that – as of Thursday – 28 of the 56 power plants were shut down, EDF cites postponed maintenance during the Corona crisis and corrosion problems, for which 13 reactors are currently being checked. The aging power plant park also requires more complex maintenance; contrary to what was originally planned, the reactors are now to remain connected to the grid for more than 40 years.
However, an external study at EDF also cites “many factors of inefficiency” as the reason for the long maintenance periods. Reasons are, for example, the regulations and labor law, which is why the maintenance of the piles in France takes much longer than abroad. As an expert told the newspaper “Le Figaro”, a power plant in the USA stands still for 30 days for maintenance, in France this takes 70 to 119 days. However, the complex maintenance work is often not comparable.
Nuclear power production hits historic low in France
As a result, French nuclear power production has reached an all-time low at the moment, costing EDF billions and giving the country a power problem before the winter crisis. For several months, France has been importing more electricity than usual from Germany. “We need European solidarity,” admitted President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday, looking ahead to the winter. France will export gas to Germany and import electricity from there. For this, capacity bottlenecks in the cross-border electricity grid would have to be eliminated, Energy Transition Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher insisted in a letter to Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) a few days ago, as reported by “Le Figaro”.
As Pannier-Runacher emphasized, EDF has undertaken to bring as many reactors back online as possible by winter – but EDF does not present a timetable for this. The power plant operator has reason to play the ball back into politics. Because years ago, and initially also during President Emmanuel Macron’s first term of office, support and the willingness to invest in nuclear power shook. This is also seen as a reason for the shortage of skilled workers in the nuclear power sector, which the study also identifies as a problem. It is said that around 100 specialists from the US power plant builder Westinghouse are now to help out with the maintenance of the French nuclear power plants.
Macron is now insisting on swift implementation of the plan he presented in February for a renaissance of France’s nuclear power. No piles should be closed as long as technically possible, six to eight new ones should be built and the energy company EDF should be fully nationalized again, he said on Thursday. At the same time, a training offensive should be launched in order to have enough staff again – all measures that will not remedy the current slack in electricity.
Berlin is closely monitoring the situation in France
The situation in France is also being observed very closely in Germany. It has not yet been decided whether the federal government will leave two of the three still active nuclear power plants connected to the grid to ensure the power supply. The lights are scheduled to go out on December 31 of this year. Russia’s attack on Ukraine and the resulting aggravated situation on the energy market have shaken the fixed date for Germany’s nuclear phase-out.
Could two of the three nuclear power plants remain online until mid-April 2023? That also depends to a large extent on the performance of the nuclear power plants in France, say the responsible Green Federal Ministers for Climate and the Environment, Robert Habeck and Steffi Lemke. According to the current status, the federal government wants to make the final decision on a nuclear power plant emergency reserve in November. Whether that stays that way remains to be seen. In one of the two “emergency reactors” there is already a need for repairs.