France’s troubled nuclear fleet is a bigger problem for Europe than gas from Russia

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Before Peter Dutton’s Coalition plunges again into a new investigation into the merits of nuclear energy, they may want to take a closer look at what is happening in Europe, where the failure of France’s massive nuclear power plant fleet is causing bigger problems for the EU’s power supply than Russia’s withheld gas supply.

France has delivered only a fraction of its energy production potential in recent months, and the situation got worse overnight when French power producer EDF announced that three more power plants would curtail production due to rising temperatures. Rivers have become too hot to cool the reactors due to the latest heat wave.

Most of France’s 56 nuclear reactors are currently shut down or taken offline due to a combination of scheduled maintenance, erosion damage (worryingly, mostly at the newer plants of the aging fleet), and cooling water shortages due to recurring heat waves and droughts.

Nuclear issues have caused wholesale electricity prices – both spot and forward contracts – to surge in France as it has become a net importer rather than an exporter. Northern Italy, another grid heavily dependent on French nuclear supplies, has also suffered badly and has spilled over into other markets.

And because France is limiting its consumer energy bills – to perpetuate the myth of “cheap” nuclear power and to protect French pride – the cost for EDF to make up for the difference is estimated at more than €24 billion this year alone. ($A40 billion). .

Energy analysts now say France’s nuclear problems pose a greater risk to the EU’s power supply than gas from Russia.

“The problem child in Europe’s power supply is definitely France,” Bruno Burger, an energy researcher at the Fraunhofer ISE, told Die Zeit newspaper.

Burger says significant long-term power shortages in France will also cause problems elsewhere in Europe, as low French production means scarcity in EU electricity markets and higher prices for everyone.

Germany heats most of its households with gas and is therefore looking anxiously at a possible gas shortage this winter as Russia has cut off supplies. But French households mainly use electricity for heating, which means that a core shortage poses a risk to the heat supply for the coming winter.

“Because of the many problems in its nuclear fleet, France is more dependent than ever on other countries – and can no longer supply other countries, as it did with Italy in the past,” he explained.

French energy supplier EDF told Die Zeit it cannot say when the country’s nuclear fleet will have overcome its aging problems, saying that “the repair and maintenance program will continue”.

According to Clean Energy Wire, the German-French Agency for the Energy Transition (DFBEW) estimates that France’s “power gap” could persist for another 10 to 15 years, meaning that growing renewable energy capacity will ultimately also benefit French customers. .

That view is shared by a respected Paris-based analyst known as “Jerome a Paris,” who writes that nuclear power in France is declining in the long term.

“We can face a period of 10-20 years when France is structurally unable to fully produce its own electricity, and is dependent on imports from neighboring countries, reversing the pattern of the past 30 years and affecting the whole of Europe. energy markets come under pressure.” he writes.

(That view is supported, at least in the near term, by the rising cost of 2023 electricity futures contracts for the French market – the highest in Europe and priced recently at over €600/MWh – or nearly $A1,000 MWh for “baseload”.

“The French government’s recent decision to nationalize EDF is an implicit acknowledgment that this will be an existential crisis for the company and the country,” said the analyst.

He notes that most of the discussion about the EU power crisis focuses on Germany, but that it is misplaced.

“All the criticism that can be heard about Germany’s decision to close its nuclear power plants ignores the fact that gas availability is not the problem for the energy sector: the real problem is the unavailability of French nuclear energy,” he writes.

European electricity prices at 12 noon on Thursday this week.

German electricity production (shown here as a percentage of total electricity production) barely increased between 2021 and 2022, although nuclear production was halved (from 11% to 6%) as part of the planned exit. The difference was absorbed by increasing the penetration of renewable energy sources.

(The remaining part of Germany’s nuclear capacity will be closed at the end of this year, but there is no pressure to extend that closing date, partly to cover the French nuclear deficit).

“In other words, the gas price increases should only have led to electricity price increases at peak times, and not across the board,” says Jerome. “And yet electricity prices have soared and for much longer periods than you would expect from a mere disruption of gas availability.”

Jerome says the war in Ukraine and its impact on markets masks the depth of the problem in France. But not for long: “It will certainly cause an ugly debate in France, given how unprepared the political class is for this energy transition.

Written with input from Benjamin Wehrmann of Clean Energy Wire.

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