As Europe focuses on a gas market crisis that began with a covid-related supply and demand imbalance that has now been significantly magnified by the consequences of the illegal war in Ukraine, a smaller crisis in the French electricity market has attracted much less attention. Back in December, regular maintenance at its Civaux 1 plant in western France uncovered defects in pipes in the safety system at the reactor which led to the closure of four reactors, two at Civaux and two at Chooz near the Belgian border. The faults were detected close to welds on the safety injection-system circuit, which are likely to have been caused by corrosion.
In mid-January 2022, EDF announced that similar faults had been found at Civaux 2 and Chooz B2. In addition, the ten-year in-service inspection at Penly 1 – one of twelve 1300 MWe-class units of the P’4 series – also revealed stress corrosion. (The piping of the P’4 units differs from that of the eight older P4 series units.) This meant that in the middle of winter, ten out of France’s 56 nuclear reactors were out of service for one reason or another, cutting available capacity by 20%.
Nuclear output collapses with faults in multiple reactors
Until the 1970s, France was a net importer of electricity, but as it developed its nuclear resources, it became the largest net electricity exporter in the world, with electricity being the country’s fourth largest export. However, now the fleet is aging: the average age of the country’s 56 reactors is 37 years, against an original lifetime licence of only 30 years. They are now subject to ten-year reviews to allow their continued operation. In February 2021, the French regulator, ASN, approved a further ten-year extension for the 32, 900 MWe reactors in operation, but with a requirement for various improvements during the 10-year period. At that time, the required upgrades had already been completed at Tricastin 1 and Bugey 2, with the full programme expected to run until 2031.
The 20, 1300 MWe class reactors had 10-year extensions approved in October 2006 – the third ten-year inspections are scheduled to run from 2015 to 2024. In March 2015 ASN said that there were no generic elements to prevent these units from operating safely to 40 years, and that it considered the actions planned or already taken by EDF to assess and manage their condition up to their fourth inspection were adequate. However, it noted that these assessments did not take account of any evaluations of the reactor pressure vessels for operation beyond 30 years, nor the results of the third ten-yearly inspections.
The current reactor problems are being identified as part of the 10-early inspections required by ASN in order to secure lifetime extensions beyond the original 30-year licences issued to the reactors. The defects are only detectible through ultrasonic testing. “Stress corrosion” has been found in pipes in the backup safety coolant system – the safety coolant injection system allows the plant operator to pump a neutralising agent directly into the nuclear core in an emergency in order to stop the nuclear reaction. Similar problems have been found in the 900 MWe Chinon 3 reactor which has also been taken offline. The entire fleet will now need to be inspected, although the cracks appear to be slow-moving and shallow compared with the size of the pipes, giving time for a solution to be found. Bugey 3 and Flamanville 1 and 2 will be tested during their scheduled shutdowns in the early part of this year, while the Chinon 3, Cattenom 3 and Bugey 4 are also being shut down over the same period.
This weekend, French grid operator RTE requested that domestic companies, local authorities and households reduce energy consumption on the morning of 4 April between 7am and 10am, warning of a potentially “tense” capacity margin. Consumers are being advised to turn down thermostats if they are out – most French heating is electric rather than gas – switch off devices on standby and reduce the number of lights on in a room. This is as a result of the cold weather across Europe, which has seen demand jump. RTE said electricity consumption may reach 73 GW on Monday morning with production possibly only of 65 GW, requiring around 11 GW of imports to maintain the supply and demand balance.
As nuclear output declined over the second half of the winter, French electricity exports declined significantly, and the country has seen a growth in imports. This is particularly unhelpful for its neighbours which are struggling to find alternatives to Russian gas (although in the case of Germany, it could easily elect to re-open the nuclear reactors it closed in December for political reasons, particularly since it habitually imports nuclear power from France).
New-build plans…more nuclear, more renewables…
The current problems with the French nuclear fleet echo those in Britain, where previously extended lifetimes are being shortened and several reactors have now permanently closed ahead of the expiry of the extension periods. The specific issues are different, but they are indicative of the ages of the reactors – the older they become, the more likely they are to suffer defects and spend more time on maintenance outages. At the same time, EDF has been struggling to deliver its next generation of reactors, with the flagship project at Flamanville more than a decade behind schedule and almost 4 times over budget. Just last week, EDF announced that there would be further delays and cost overruns at Hinkley Point C due to the Ukrainian conflict, supply chain disruption and inflation, among other reasons. The updated estimates are expected in the summer.
While there is a glimmer of hope with the start-up of the equally troubled Olkiluoto 3 reactor in Finland, which is slowly ramping up to full production in July, Taishan 1 remains offline after shutting down last summer due to damage to the fuel assembly. The French and Finnish nuclear regulators are taking a different approach to the Taishan question, with ASN requiring a satisfactory resolution to the problem before authorising the opening of Flamanville (although the plant is not yet ready to open, so this may not create any delay in practice).
Despite this less-than-encouraging backdrop, in February, President Macron announced a reversal in the country’s long-term policy of reducing its reliance on nuclear, with news that the country would build six new reactors and consider adding a further eight in order to support reduced consumption of fossil fuels, both in electricity generation and more widely through electrification.
“Key to producing this electricity in the most carbon-free, safest and most sovereign way is precisely to have a plural strategy… to develop both renewable and nuclear energies. We have no other choice but to bet on these two pillars at the same time. It is the most relevant choice from an ecological point of view and the most expedient from an economic point of view and finally the least costly from a financial point of view,” – Emmanuel Macron, President of France
Macron claims that EDF has “learned lessons” from the Olkiluoto and Flamanville projects and had designed an improved version of the technology termed “EPR-2”. At least six of these EPR-2 reactors will be built under the new construction programme, which is set to begin by 2028 following a broad public consultation in the second half of 2022 with parliamentary discussions in 2023. The first EPR-2s should then be commissioned by 2035 at an estimated cost of around €50 billion, a lower figure than is expected at either Flamanville or Hinkley Point.
In addition, Macron announced €1.0 billion of funding for small modular reactors and “innovative reactors to close the fuel cycle and produce less waste” with an ambition to construct a first prototype in France by 2030. At the same time, France will increase its solar capacity tenfold by 2050 to more than 100 GW and target building 50 offshore wind farms with a combined capacity of at least 40 GW.
…and also more gas
Against this backdrop, the French could be relieved that last week saw the start of commercial operations at the new gas-fired power station at Landivisiau in Brittany. The 446 MW plant is vital for grid security in a region with no nuclear power stations and rapidly growing electricity demand – to date Brittany has only produced 10-15% of the electricity it requires, with the bulk being imported from other regions.
The plant cost around €450 million while the gas pipeline supplying the plant cost an additional €100 million. Additional transmission infrastructure was expected to cost between €30 – 40 million, while the gas connection was expected to add a further €20 – 30 million. The European Commission approved financial assistance for the project, subject to a condition that the output cannot be sold under long-term contracts to any firm with a market share greater than 40% of the French electricity generation market. Siemens was awarded the construction contract for the plant which is the first in France to be equipped with a combined gas cycle with co-generation.
“Thanks to its flexibility, our new power plant in Landivisiau will be ideal for balancing out the fluctuating infeed from wind and solar plants. It will therefore make a crucial contribution to supply security in the region. The efficient gas turbine technology from Siemens and their participation during the project development phase were important factors in successfully implementing this project,” – Xavier Caitucoli, CEO of Total Direct Énergie
First proposed in 2012, the project was beset with legal challenges, meaning that construction did not begin until 2019. Around another 1.4 GW of new gas plant is planned in France in addition to Landivisiau.
The situation in France as well as the wider energy crisis underline the complacency with which European governments have viewed energy policy in recent years. As Britain, Germany and others have pushed hard to deploy intermittent renewable generation, consumers have been burdened with higher costs and reduced energy resilience.
Much of the EU has ignored the geopolitical risks associated with reliance on Russian gas, despite the warnings in 2014 with the annexation of the Crimea, while Britain and France have allowed crucial generation assets to age out without planning credibly for their replacement. In different ways, governments across the Continent have assumed that an unusually benign market environment would persist indefinitely and failed to adopt any contingency plans. As a result, security of supply is being undermined – as the French are learning today with pleas from RTE for them to reduce consumption – while costs everywhere are rising, pushing even more people into fuel poverty.
It is hard to see any quick resolutions to these problems: the global gas markets will struggle to replace Russian supplies given the current pipeline of LNG projects, and there are limits to what can be achieved through fuel substitution. This means that high prices will be here to stay, and that governments will need to find other levers to reduce pressure on consumers. The obvious place to look is to reducing the impact of green levies and carbon taxes – it is to be hoped fairness to current consumers will be prioritised above climate policies that are designed to mitigate longer-term (predicted) harms.