France faces blackouts, price spikes as nuclear plants closed for safety

France’s heavy reliance on nuclear baseload energy is leaving it short of power, and the country faces blackouts and soaring power prices this winter.

French grid operator RTE last week warned consumers about rolling blackouts in winter and energy analysts predicted soaring power prices after more than one-third of the country’s nuclear plants had to be shut down because of safety concerns over its reactor vessels.

France has often been used as an example by anti-renewable activists, particularly those within the fossil fuel industry and conservative parties, to argue that the sort of events that occurred in South Australia in the past few months – a couple of half-hour surges in prices and a state-wide blackout – could only happen in a renewables dependent grid.

But France’s heavy reliance on nuclear – it supplies around three-quarters of its electricity – leaves it terribly exposed when something goes wrong, such a generic design fault.

The French regulator has ordered the closure of up to 24 ageing nuclear power plants so that a crucial steel component could be reviewed after investigations into the disastrous delays and cost overruns at its next generation plant at Flamanville revealed major faults, which have been repeated in at least 18 other generators.

France used the standardisation to build its reactor fleet quickly and cheaply, but environmental groups have been warning for years that the discovery of such a generic fault could incapacitate a large part of the fleet.


RTE has now warned that even using the remaining fleet at full capacity (they normally operate at a relatively low capacity of around 70 per cent) would leave it some 10GW short of power at times this winter.

This will leave it dependent on other countries – Belgium, German, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and the UK – to make up the difference. But on occasions when that extra supply could not be delivered (Belgium, for instance, also has problems with its nuclear reactors), then blackouts were inevitable.

Analysts have also warned that French power prices will likely hit the local cap of 3,000 Euros/MWh.They argue that the cap should be lifted to more than €10,000. (The cap in Australia is $A14,000/MWh but has rarely been hit in Australia since large amounts of wind and solar entered the market).

“That this winter we will hit that price cap in France is almost a certainty,” Nicolaj Janss Lafond, senior cross-border trader at Engie, told a conference in Amsterdam last week. “At some point this winter France is going to have the need to import from the UK in the most expensive hours.”

Reuters said the potential power cuts exposed the vulnerabilities of France’s dependence on nuclear power.

“During some periods of the day in winter, and during some days, we may need to use exceptional measures to guarantee the balance of electricity demand and supply on the network,” RTE President Francois Brottes told reporters at a news conference last week.

These measures would include more power imports, particularly renewables-rich Germany, but could also include paying industrial groups to switch off machinery and rolling blackouts in part of the country.

Most homes in France, which has been slow to implement energy efficiency measures because they were encouraged to use as much power as they can to justify the nuclear investment, rely on electricity for heating, so blackouts in winter will be highly sensitive.

RTE says it will ask households to lower their thermostats by around 1° to 2°, avoid using washing machines and dishwashers between 8am and 1pm and from 6pm to 8pm, and to switch off lights in empty rooms.

The longer-term issues are also significant. The French power generator EdF, which operates the nuclear power plants, is strapped for cash and has to borrow to pay dividends.

But it faces huge bills in coming years – with estimates ranging from €50-€80 billion – to upgrade its ageing fleet to meet standards.

It faces an even bigger bill should it choose to replace the ageing nuclear reactors once they get to the end of their life, or need further upgrades.

The new generation French reactors in France and Finland are running a decade over-due and at three times the cost. The faults discovered in Flamanville mean that the reactor may never be completed. But EDF has nevertheless won a contract from the UK government to use the technology to build a nuclear plant at Hinkley C, regarded by many critics as potentially the biggest white elephant ever built.

This comes as the biggest market for nuclear reactors – China – experiences a massive slowdown in projects on fears about the costs and the fact that it may have gone too far, too fast. Even under the most optimistic plausible scenario, nuclear could never provide more than 10 per cent of the country’s power.  []

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