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.
The Green policy block continues so far with little sign of shifting: we haven’t started fracking, the Germans have not switched their reactors back on. Still, politicians at some point panic and then things happen. The question is what?
We may yet see movement on fracking with the new energy white paper, which is now expected on Thursday. The only option available when the panic sets in will be to build large gas power stations since they can be delivered quickly. That isn’t necessarily going to work in Germany where access to gas is a huge issue, but in GB it should be feasible….
For some reason I don’t have much faith that the EPR/2 reactors will be built on time. Do you know what is France/Europe’s continegency plan if French nuclear reactors start dropping off with time and there are no replacements?
I share your concerns, but am not awre of any contingency plans. Other than curtailing consumers. I suspect that as in the UK there may be a need for more gas plant since it is one of the few technologies that can be built quickly, at scale, and deliver round the clock reliability.
Explains why we’ve been on export mode today but that means we have to have 2GW extra on the system so does this force up the price of our generation to meet demand or is it treated differently.
Separately we’ve also been exporting gas as well into Europe at quite high levels last few weeks guess as an attempt to offset some Russian gas. Doable this time of year but come next winter there are going to be a lot of constraints on energy flows as well to add to market uncertainty on top of reduced French nuclear output.
The economics behind interconnector flows are supposed to be simple but as less so in practice. The idea is that electricity flows from the low priced to the high priced market, but as the higher priced market effectively creates additional demand in the low priced market, this can drive up prices until the marginal price of generation in the low priced market equalls that in the high priced market if cross-border capacity is unconstrained. Eventually the prices would equalise but costs in the lower priced market would definitely rise.
In practice, flows are constrained by the capcity of the interconnectors and by the actions of TSOs who can limit available capacity on the grounds of local network congestion – something that can be abused in order to limit the negative economic impacts of cross-border flows (ie a TSO can say there is congestion when actually it just wants to stop domestic prices from rising too much, something ACER is trying to clamp down on).
We can also the impact on the lower-priced market in Norway where prices have risen dramatically since the interconnectors with Germany and GB totalling almost 3 GW have opened. Eventually we could see political push-back. For example, we are exporting to France because France has shortages due to a failure to properly maintain and replace its nuclear fleet over the past decade. Why should we pay higher prices due to this political choice? Of course, we have genreally benefitted from importing cheaper French nuclear energy for the past decade, so you could equally say why should French taxpayers subside our failure to develop our own cheap nuclear power.
At some point the separation of cross-border trading and national energy policies will break down and I expect Norway to be the key point of tension since Norwegians gain no discernible benefit from their electricity interconnectors, but are facing a significant detriment.
French wind and solar plans will take them into territory far beyond the ability of their hydro to offer balancing. That means it will back out nuclear and increase the need for gas. Of course, with so much nuclear under threat of closure, it seems the Macron announcement it likely to prove well short of what they need. A problem that could worsen with their poor technology choice.