Monday, April 22, 2024
European Union

France’s nuclear collapse: short-sighted Green policies exposed

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The French have recently felt what a bad idea it was to replace nuclear power plants with renewables. From an exporter of electricity, the country has become an importer dependent on Germany.

Olivier Bault

In early December 2022, after several weeks of French government preparations for possible power outages this winter, President Emmanuel Macron felt compelled to intervene. Seeking to calm the mood and defend his rule from criticism coming from the opposition benches and the media, he asked the French not to give credence to “scare tactics.” He assured that France will “endure” if everyone does “their job.” Which does not change the fact that, especially for this winter season, a system had to be implemented to warn electricity consumers of power grid overloads, encouraging them to save as much as possible at the most critical moments. A plan has also been prepared for two-hour rotating cuts, from which only “priority” users will be protected, such as hospitals, police stations, fire departments, prisons, some transportation infrastructure, and some industrial plants.

Unlike what is happening in Poland due to rising coal prices and reduced availability of this raw material, the problems with power generation in France are in no way related to Russia’s war in Ukraine. They are the direct results of an ill-considered attempt to replace some nuclear power generation with renewable sources such as wind and solar. Unhappily for the general public and foreign consumers of French electricity, but happily for those in power in France, who can thus blame the situation on Putin, these effects simply coincided with a major energy crisis in Europe.

The great shutdown

And yet the French remember (or if they don’t, they are now being reminded of it in the media) that during the 2017 election campaign, presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron pledged to reduce the share of nuclear power plants in power generation, thus upholding a promise made earlier, before the 2012 presidential election, but not fulfilled by his predecessor François Hollande, who wrote in his “60 commitments for France”: “I will reduce the share of nuclear power in electricity generation from 75% to 50% by 2025.” Delivering on one of François Hollande’s promises in this regard, Emmanuel Macron led the charge to close France’s oldest nuclear power plant in Fessenheim, Alsace, in 2020. Both presidents, who hail from the Socialist Party, acted under pressure from the Greens, whose support they needed to secure a stable majority in the National Assembly. And so, after a decade-long moratorium on nuclear investment, the Seine’s nuclear park is outdated and underinvested, and the effects of this state of affairs were felt in earnest exactly the same year that the war unleashed by the Kremlin exacerbated the just-ended months-long energy crisis in the European market.

Suffice it to say that by the summer of 2022, only half of France’s nuclear reactors were operating, a situation previously unheard of. At the end of the year, there was still a race against time to connect as many of them to the grid as possible before the cold weather. As of mid-December, however, 16 of France’s 56 nuclear reactors were still offline due to scheduled maintenance or unforeseen technical problems, caused mainly by the appearance of rust in the water circulation pipes of the old reactors. Out of a total capacity of 61 GW, available power from the atom was thus at only 39 GW. France thus became a net importer of electricity last year for the first time in 42 years, ceasing to be a major exporter of electricity in Europe. The problem with corrosion weakening the water circulation tubes of nuclear power plants was flagged as early as 2017, when the Nuclear Safety Agency (ASN) said it was present in 29 of the 58 reactors at the time and that it could potentially pose a serious threat.

France is a double loser”

The unfavorable evolution in the availability of nuclear energy was described last July on the portal of the daily Le Figaro by Fabien Bouglié, a specialist in energy policy and author of the book “Nuclear Power: hidden truths – facing the illusions of renewable energy” (Nucléaire: les vérités cachées – Face aux illusions des énergies renouvelables):

In 2021, we were self-sufficient and even enjoyed an export balance (the difference between our exports and imports in Europe) of 43 terawatt-hours. In contrast, we are now importing 10 terawatt-hours from Germany and Belgium, while by 2019 we had a positive balance of exports to these countries (6 terawatt-hours in 2018, for example). This means that the closure of Fessenheim [nuclear power plant, Ed.], which provided our neighbors with emission-free electricity, has contributed to our dependence on Germany, and in particular on its coal-fired electricity. France is a double loser, as it is weakening its electric sovereignty, but in addition, with the explosion of the spot price of electricity, it is adding to its energy import bill, contributing to its trade balance deficit. France is in a lose-lose situation, helped in large part by the closure of the Alsatian nuclear power plant. I fear that in 2022 we will find ourselves in a high import situation, which would be unprecedented in France at least since the Messmer Plan began in 1974, with 58 nuclear reactors in operation.”

The number of days of the year during which France must import electricity from neighboring countries instead of exporting it has actually increased from 17 in 2018 to 220 in 2022. Although the past year saw a real collapse of French nuclear energy, the increase had already begun several years ago. Indeed, the number of import days was 25 in 2019, 42 in 2020, 78 in 2021.

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In 2018, France produced 412.9 TWh of electricity at its 19 nuclear power plants and was thus the world’s second nuclear power producer after the United States (841.3 TWh) and ahead of China (295 TWh). In 2019, the French produced just 379.5 TWh of nuclear power. In 2022, according to revised forecasts published by French giant EDF in early November, the French were expected to produce only 275-285 TWh of it, the least since 1990. Thus, the share of nuclear power in French power generation is also steadily declining. At its peak in 2005, it was 78.3%. In 2021, that is, even before the dramatic decline associated with the proliferation of repair and maintenance work in 2022, it was only 69%.

In early September last year, the French president announced via video conference after a meeting with the German chancellor on the energy crisis that, in the name of European solidarity, France would send gas to Germany during the coming winter if necessary, in exchange for which Olaf Scholz promised to supply France with electricity from German gas and coal-fired power plants. Bouglié wrote of Germany in July as follows: “This country cares a lot about the increase in our electricity bills, because it is tantamount to a decrease in the competitiveness of our companies. In an internal document, the German [think tank, Ed.] Agora Energiewende predicted a few years ago that the decline in [production, Ed.] of French nuclear power would make German coal-fired power plants competitive. We have just reached that point.”

The Franco-German energy agreement has exposed years of short-sighted and demagogic policies of the left-green government in Paris. The 2012-2018 High Commissioner for Nuclear Energy, Yves Bréchet, spoke in early December before the National Assembly’s commission of inquiry “on the loss of France’s sovereignty and energy independence” about the downright stupidity of those in power, the incompetence of advisors working in ministries and the government’s habit of suppressing scientific arguments in favor of short-sighted political interests. He also mentioned the decision made in 2018 to abandon the construction of the prototype fourth-generation ASTRID reactor, which was supposed to allow infinite recycling of radioactive waste produced by classical reactors. For Bréchet, it was “a short-sighted decision that will go down in history as a model of stupidity or cynicism.” Instead, it was a decision that was part of a string of similar decisions made by leftist governments: in 1997, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, heading a coalition with the Communists and Greens, decided to shut down an earlier-generation Superphénix prototype.

Thus, the problem of radioactive waste from power generation remains unresolved. According to the latest inventory available on the website of the national radioactive waste management agency, more than 1.7 million cubic meters of such waste was stored in France at the end of 2020, compared to 1.54 million cubic meters three years earlier. To dispose of 3% of the of the most radioactive waste from the La Hague radioactive waste treatment plant (which accounts for 99% of the radioactivity of all such waste stored in France and some of which will retain its radioactivity for up to several hundred thousand years), an underground storage facility for 85,000 cubic meters is being built. It is expected to be ready in 2035 and will cost €25 billion.

Lost competence

Breaking off from his previously proclaimed policy of reducing the share of nuclear power in France’s overall energy mix, Emmanuel Macron announced last February the construction of six EPR2 reactors, intended to be an upgraded version of the EPR reactors under construction at Flamanville for the past 15 years. They were originally scheduled to be ready within five years. In October of last year, however, the administrator general of the Atomic Energy Commissariat, François Jacq, explained before the French Senate’s economic affairs committee that the huge delay (and huge increase in costs) of the EPR project at Flamanville was due not so much to faulty technology, but to France’s loss of needed competence due to years of failure to build new nuclear reactors. Regarding the loss of previously held competencies, it is also worth mentioning that a key division of the French company Alstom, which produces turbines for French nuclear reactors, was sold off to the US General Electric under President Hollande. This happened with the acquiescence of Hollande’s then Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron.

This time, however, the adopted timetable for the construction of three power plants with two EPR2 reactors each seems more realistic, as it is assumed that the first reactors will begin operation between 2035 and 2040 (although the president himself originally spoke of 2030). This means, of course, that they will not help solve the current energy crisis, just as the president’s announced prospect of building eight more such reactors will not help in the medium term.

Another twist in the French president’s policy was his decision, announced last March, to completely “privatize” the French energy company EDF. In addition, in order to speed up the process of building new reactors and repairing existing ones, work on a special law simplifying procedures is to begin in the French parliament in January. However, it is a pity about this lost decade.

What is most astonishing is that it took a months-long energy crisis and the increasingly real prospect of a Russian invasion of Ukraine for the French president to finally announce, on February 10th, 2022, a change in the direction of past policy and a return to France’s policy of nuclear-based energy independence.

This shows how contemporary policies in Western countries lack far-sighted planning and how momentary emotions take precedence over cool analysis and choices made in the national interest understood in a perspective of at least several decades, as was the case when decisions were made in the 1970s to build the current French nuclear power plants. It is also further evidence of the inconsistency and sincerity of those in power in the fight against greenhouse gas emissions, since in fact in a country where nuclear power dominates, every windmill built means an increase in CO2 emissions from hydrocarbon-fueled power plants.

For more than a dozen years, those in power in France have deliberately ignored the obvious fact that in order to increase the share of non-permanent renewable energy sources at the expense of nuclear power, hydrocarbon-fired electricity capacity must be similarly increased, or such energy imported from neighboring countries. After all, nuclear reactors cannot be turned on and off every now and then depending on whether the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.

This article was published in January 2023 in “Do Rzeczy” weekly.