France extends shutdown of four nuclear reactors amid corrosion problems

French electricity group EDF has announced that shutdowns of four nuclear reactors would be extended for several weeks because of corrosion problems, potentially putting more pressure on prices as winter approaches.

France extends shutdown of four nuclear reactors amid corrosion problems
Smoke rises from chimneys of the Bugey nuclear power plant on January 25, 2022, in Saint-Vulbas, central eastern France. (Photo by JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK / AFP)

France generates some 70 percent of its electricity from a fleet of 56 reactors, but 32 are currently offline either for routine maintenance or to evaluate the corrosion risks.

EDF said the stress corrosion — which produces tiny cracks — was found at four sites near welds on pipes of cooling circuits that are crucial in case of shutdowns or accidents, prompting shutdowns and inspections of eight similar reactors.

The four reactors are now set to resume output between November 1st and January 23nd.

Overall output for 2022 is now expected at the lower end of its forecast of 280 to 300 terawatt-hours (TWh), an EDF spokesman told AFP.

If its own production is insufficient for France’s needs, EDF imports electricity from elsewhere in Europe, where prices are soaring as Russia clamps down on exports of natural gas, also a main source for electricity.

The emergency work added to the financial woes of the heavily indebted state-controlled company, which the government now plans to fully nationalise as it moves to relaunch France’s nuclear industry.

President Emmanuel Macron called earlier this year for the construction of up to 14 new reactors to power the country’s transition away from fossil fuels.

Customers in France have so far escaped the soaring utility bills seen across much of Europe thanks to the government’s price cap, although this currently runs only until the end of the year.

EXPLAINED Why are French energy prices capped?

Member comments

  1. “Smoke rises from chimneys of the Bugey nuclear power…”

    Ce n’est pas de la fumée; c’est de la vapeur d’eau.

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French debt in spotlight as ratings agencies sound alarm

France's surging national debt is causing increasing alarm with the country risking a fresh warning on Friday over its credit rating after a downgrade.

French debt in spotlight as ratings agencies sound alarm

Leading ratings agency Fitch in April lowered its rating on France’s debt, which is approaching €3 trillion.

It pointed to the country’s hung parliament and public protests as risks to plans by President Emmanuel Macron to cut government spending.

Influential rival S&P Global is set to update its advice on Friday, with the country risking further censure over its chronic overspending that last saw a government run a budget surplus in the 1970s.

“We will be uncompromising on the balancing of our public finances, on the reduction of our deficits and on the acceleration of the reduction of the debt,” Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told France Inter radio on Wednesday.

He said he had spoken with S&P Global and presented his analysis personally, aware of the influence global credit agencies have on financial markets where downgrades usually increase the cost of borrowing money for governments.

“Whatever happens with S&P, it won’t change anything in terms of our determination to meet our targets for the public finances,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Thursday.

Macron came to power in 2017 promising to balance France’s books and his first prime minister, Edouard Philippe, memorably told parliament that the country was “dancing on a volcano that is rumbling ever louder”.

But unbudgeted tax cuts during Macron’s first term following the so-called “Yellow Vest” anti-government revolt and the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 have led to a sharp deterioration in the public finances since.

Credibility questioned

The country’s debt currently stands at around 111 percent of gross national product (GDP), from just shy of 100 percent before Covid-19 when Macron put in place one of Europe’s most generous social safety nets.

The government has brought the annual public deficit down from a whopping 9.0 percent of GDP in 2020 to a forecast 4.9 percent this year.

Its projections show it falling to below 3.0 percent by 2027 when Macron will leave office.

But ratings agencies and investors are increasingly concerned about the credibility of the 45-year-old centrist leader whose successful prior career in investment banking once saw him dubbed the “Mozart of finance”.

He has pushed through a pension reform this year in the face of the biggest demonstrations in a generation, but the proposed savings will be lower than first expected because of concessions made to trade unions and opponents.

On top of multi-billion-euro subsidies packages and price controls last year aimed at easing a cost-of-living crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine, Macron has since promised further tax cuts of €2 billion for the middle classes.

Increased defence spending — set to rise €400 billion over the next seven years — is a further drag on the public purse.

The public finances “were already in a degraded state before the Covid-19 pandemic, but to our eyes they now call for urgent measures”, the head of the national auditing office, Pierre Moscovici, said in March.

“Reforming the public finances… has to be a national priority,” he argued.

The French central bank has issued similar warnings in milder language.

France has the highest level of public spending relative to the size of its economy of all countries monitored by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a Paris-based economic institute.

Fitch lowered its rating by one notch on April 28 to “AA-“.

Macron said the agency “was making a profound mistake in its political analysis” in comments to the l’Opinion magazine afterwards.

S&P Global currently ranks France at “AA” and is thought by analysts to be considering following Fitch’s move. A statement is expected at 2100 GMT.