France's ageing nuclear fleet paints bleak picture for coming winter and near future

France's ageing nuclear fleet paints bleak picture for coming winter and near future

As French President Emmanuel Macron puts nuclear energy at the heart of his country's drive towards carbon neutrality, others are increasingly questioning this idea, given the state of the country's nuclear power plants.

France has the largest number of nuclear reactors in Europe, 56 in total, priding itself on being more or less autonomous when it comes to electricity production, with around 70-75% coming from nuclear and all run by state-owned EDF.

But this year, nearly half of the country's ageing nuclear fleet had to be shut down due to corrosion, summer heat waves or postponed maintenance, dramatically reducing electrical output.

In a matter of months, France went from being Europe's largest electricity exporter, to importing more than it was sending out.

Speaking to Euronews, EDF director Jean-Marie Boursier, defended the need to import, as well as export.

“There are times during the day when we export electricity and then there are times during the day when we are importing it since you know that electricity cannot be stored," Boursier said.

"And there must always be a balance between production and consumption and therefore depending on the time of day. Occasionally, we are exporters of electricity to Germany and other countries and occasionally we are importers. So, you have to balance.”

He added that his company was working as hard as possible to restart all its reactors.

"We are indeed doing our best to restore the full power of our reactors," the EDF director said. "All my colleagues on the other sites are working hard every day, so that these reactors can return to production.

"We have shutdowns for maintenance that are scheduled throughout the year and we had to face, like the whole planet, the pandemic.

"This meant that we had to postpone a certain number of [maintenance] stops during the COVID period, which meant that we took off stops for maintenance. And then we also have a few reactors that have been shut down for corrosion policies."

Winter is coming

For France and Europe, the shutdowns could not have come at a worse time.

With winter fast approaching and the energy markets still reeling from the war in Ukraine, the possibility of blackouts are not a far off reality.

France's energy minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher said earlier this year that EDF was working wholeheartedly to reopen all its nuclear reactors this winter in order to avoid such a situation.

The energy giant EDF, which was nationalised by Macron’s government earlier this year, also plans to construct six new reactors on three existing sites, with the first supposed to be ready by around 2035.

It is all part of the French president's drive to put nuclear energy at the centre of the country's bid to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, one of the European Commission's flagship commitments of its mandate.

But local activists in the Paluel area in Normandy, where one power plant is located, say the estimated €50 billion to be spent on the new reactors would be better spent on more sustainable sources of electricity.

“The reactors will never be ready in 2035 or 2037, as announced - it's a certainty and it's costing us a fortune," Jean-Paul Desjardins, a local activist in Paluel told Euronews.

"EDF is in deficit and bankrupt. It is therefore the State that pays, that is to say, us, of course. And with this money, we could do much, much more in terms of renewable energies, like solar, wind power, and greener transport."

For Pauline Boyer of Greenpeace, nuclear energy is also not the way forward.

"President Macron stubbornly promotes the illusion of nuclear power as a climate solution, despite admitting that no new nuclear power plant will produce electricity before 2040," Boyer said earlier this year.

"Polluting, failing, expensive and slow, nuclear energy is neither ‘green’ nor ‘transitional’."

Mix it up

Many experts argue that it is important to have a mix of different energy sources to both meet Europe's needs and its climate goals, something Boursier agrees with.

"We have to look at the problem of global warming, which means that we will gradually move from fossil fuels to electric energies and, of course, to produce this electrical energy, it is necessary to use technologies that emit little carbon," the EDF director told Euronews.

"And so you have to use low-carbon technologies. In those low-carbon technologies you have renewables, solar, wind, hydraulics, which are of interest, and then you have nuclear, which emits relatively little carbon since studies have shown that over the complete life cycle of a nuclear power plant, there are six grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour.

"And so the solution to fight global warming is to switch to electric energies and absolutely no carbon in the atmosphere."

But with so many reactors currently under maintenance and the country’s new nuclear fleet not due for many years, most will be more concerned with the here and now, rather than what is to come in the future.