OPINION: We won’t freeze this winter, but France is a long way from solving its nuclear problems

The threat of blackouts this winter has receded, thanks to EU-wide stockpiling and an unusually mild autumn. But in France, big problems remain in the country's vital nuclear power industry, as John Lichfield explains.

OPINION: We won't freeze this winter, but France is a long way from solving its nuclear problems
France's nuclear sector is struggling with many plants unable to produce electricity due to technical problems. Photo by FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP

Here is some good news. We will not necessarily freeze at home in the dark this winter. The energy outlook in France, and Europe, this winter has improved enormously.

After a scramble to replace Russian gas with imports from the US, the middle east and elsewhere, it looks like there will be plenty of gas to heat European homes and drive European industry.

Gas stocks across the European Union have reached 93 percent capacity – and 99 percent in France. Wholesale gas prices have fallen 70 percent in the last two months.

The weather is also on our side – for now. It will be 25C in Paris at the end of the week. The tentative long-range forecast from Météo France is for a coldish December but, overall, a mild winter.

One uncertainty remains: France is still struggling to bring its ailing nuclear power stations to normal capacity.

There is good news on that front too. An intermittent strike for higher pay which delayed the already backlogged, French nuclear repair and maintenance programme, has been resolved.    

Electricité de France (EDF) and the Conféderation Générale du Travail (CGT) trades union federation have reached a deal which will raise pay for the lowest paid workers by 10 percent.

The other – much more publicised – CGT led strike in oil refineries and depots is not quite over. Two out of seven French refineries are still blocked, causing some, continuing shortages for filling stations in the Paris, Lyon and Marseille areas.

But what of electricity? Is there still a threat of black-outs in France this winter?

I asked John Carr, a retired British particle physicist living in the south of France, who runs a website which monitors nuclear issues and fluctuations in power supply in France. To see the site go here and here.

He said: “I have not decided yet if I should go out to buy paraffin heaters. I will wait a month but check stocks (of heaters) at the end of November. It is clearly on the edge.”

ANALYSIS: Is France likely to face blackouts this winter?

Background: the once vaunted French nuclear industry – which usually supplies 80 percent of the country’s electricity with a surplus for exports – is in a mess. Delayed maintenance work because of the Covid pandemic and faults in the cooling systems of a dozen reactors shut down more than half the French nuclear industry this summer.

As bad luck, or bad judgement, would have it, the French power vacuum coincided with the European electricity shortage – and a spike in wholesale prices – caused by the Ukraine war.

There are 56 French nuclear reactors. Thirty are now working. Eight more are expected to come on line by the end of November. France has, in recent days, stopped importing electricity and started exporting again.

It will, however, be a close-run thing whether France has  enough power to keep all the lights on when peak demand is reached in December-February. The electricity supply arm of EDF could buy abroad again but neighbouring countries, including Britain and Germany, will also be close to their capacity limits. They may not have much power to sell.

READ ALSO What’s the problem with France’s nuclear industry?

John Carr said: “I started watching the situation at the beginning of September. The reactor restarts went more or less to schedule until the end of September and then the strikes started…Most ‘updated restart dates’ are (now) a month behind schedule. Today we have 30 gigowatts (billon watts) generation and we should have 40GW. ”

On present predicted trends, John calculates, France should  reach 53GW capacity by the end of December. Actual production is usually 10 percent below full capacity. Production may therefore be around 2GW short of what the country needs in mid-winter in an average year.

Warm weather, imports and the “sober energy use” sought by the government could make up the difference, Otherwise, there will be selective power cuts.

The power crisis has many causes. The outgoing EDF management accuses successive French governments, including President Emmanuel Macron, of shilly-shallying on nuclear policy. It was only just before this year’s election campaigns that President Macron announced plans for a new generation of reactors.

The government places the blame on EDF for failing to keep its reactors in better shape. The electricity giant is already 83.7 percent state-owned but Macron has decided to buy up the remaining shares to bring EDF under complete state control once again.

Another problem has been the repeated delays in completing a a large new generation EPR reactor at Flamanville in Normandy – finally due to open next year, 11 years behind the original schedule. This is similar to the reactor which EDF is building at Hinkley Point in Somerset, due to open in 2027, two years late.

Lessons to be learned? Nuclear power is fraught, politically, technically, environmentally. But we cannot do without it.  

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French minister: US green plan should be ‘wake-up call’ for EU industry

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire on Friday said Washington's $430 billion plan to spur climate-friendly technologies in the United States must be seen as a wake-up call for Europe.

French minister: US green plan should be 'wake-up call' for EU industry

The EU “must be able to sweep in front of our own door” before worrying about the effects of the US climate plan on European industry, Le Maire told AFP in Washington, where he was part of French President Emmanuel Macron’s US state visit.

Even though the EU has already “changed its approach” on promoting green industry, the US climate plan must be seen as a “wake-up call” in the European Union, he added.

Le Maire’s comments came as EU countries have poured criticism on Washington’s landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), seeing it as anti-competitive and a threat to European jobs, especially in the energy and auto sectors.

Subsidies for green energy

The act, designed to accelerate the US transition to a low-carbon economy, contains around $370 billion in subsidies for green energy as well as tax cuts for US-made electric cars and batteries.

Macron on Wednesday slammed the plan’s “Made in USA” provisions as “super aggressive” for European businesses.

But at a joint press conference with Macron, Biden said that he and the French leader had agreed to “discuss practical steps to coordinate and align our approaches”, though he said he would not apologize for the US plan.

Biden added the IRA was never intended to disadvantage any US allies.

Threats of retaliatory measures

Last month, EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton threatened to appeal to the World Trade Organization and consider “retaliatory measures” if the United States did not reverse its subsidies.

Le Maire also criticized the EU’s own climate spending plans, arguing that they were too cumbersome and loaded with red tape.

“If the ambition is the same” as the Europeans, the United States relies on methods that “are simpler and faster”, he said.

“They put immediate and massive tax credits where we provide state aid (to specific projects) which sometimes take two years to be adopted and are too complex to implement,” said Le Maire.