Russia closing gas tap exposes French and German dependency on nuclear and coal

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Fresh into a new mandate but without a parliamentary majority since legislative elections on Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron will now have to hammer out an energy policy caught between the gas crisis caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and an increasingly vocal green movement. Germany faces similar problems.

France's EDF currently operates 56 nuclear reactors, generating 80 percent of its electricity. But only 50 percent of the service is fully operational as a result of maintenance issues, corrosion and lack of investment.

“There’s a whole series of problems that have led to an absolutely unprecedented level of difficulties and shutdowns in France’s nuclear industry,” Yves Marignac, a nuclear energy specialist at think-tank négaWatt was quoted as saying by the Financial Times.

France's nuclear sector already faced problems before the outbreak of the Russian invasion into Ukraine.

The government, facing a crucial election year, ordered EDF in January to boost production of cheaper nuclear energy in an attempt to decrease consumer prices - a decree that would require EDF to invest over €8 billion as a result of which shares took a 20 percent hit.

Threat of shortages

In the same month, Paris decided to allow its last two operational coal-fired power plants to step up production to stave off the threat of electricity shortages resulting from the closure of some of the nuclear plants.

The war in Ukraine accelerated the pressure on France's energy sector. The decision, earlier this month, by Russian gas provider Gazprom to halt gas deliveries to Europe means that France, that imports some 17 percent of its gas from Russia, has to look for alternatives.

Gazprom said the supply reductions via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline are due to "repair work", saying equipment being refurbished in Canada was stuck there because of Western sanctions.

Paris has criticised Gazprom's move as "political".

Coal burning

Meanwhile in Germany, Economy Minister Robert Habeck said Sunday that the country will limit the use of natural gas for electricity production amid concerns about possible shortages caused by a cut in supplies from Russia.

Habeck said that Germany will try to compensate for the move by increasing the burning of coal, a more polluting fossil fuel.

“That’s bitter, but it’s simply necessary in this situation to lower gas usage,” said Habeck, a member of the environmentalist Bündnis 90/Die Grünen.

Germany, which has relied heavily on energy imports from Russia, began significantly scaling back its imports because of the war in Ukraine.

Initially, EU policy makers observers designated the war in Ukraine as a watershed in energy consumption.

“Analysts have said European countries can quickly reduce gas dependence with energy efficiency measures and ramping up renewable energy investments, which are already in line with Europe’s ambition to stop pumping additional greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by midcentury," according to the New York Times, writing in March, optimistically suggesting that "the conflict in Ukraine could fast-track some of that."

“Russia’s war of aggression constitutes a tectonic shift in European history," the EU Versailles Declaration stated on 15 March, 2022.

Therefore, it wrote, the EU has "decided to take more responsibility for our security and take further decisive steps towards building our European sovereignty, reducing our dependencies and designing a new growth and investment model for 2030”.

However, dealing with the EU's short term energy needs may not be in line with the longer-term EU plans to drastically reduce CO2 emissions, as promoted in the landmark European Green Deal, which is still largely on the drawing board. Plans to re-lapse into coal production will come as a massive blow to the green movement.

(With agencies)

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