Electricité de France has had to shut down 18 of its 58 nuclear reactors
Source : The Economist
Dec 3rd 2016 | PARIS
France’s nuclear-energy champion is in turmoil
THESE are difficult times for Electricité de France (EDF), the country’s quasi-monopolistic electricity provider, serving 88% of homes. Outages at no fewer than 18 of the 58 EDF-owned nuclear reactors that provide three-quarters of France’s electricity have meant a slump in production: the company says annual nuclear output could fall to 378 terawatt hours (TWH), from 417 TWH last year. Eight reactors are currently lying idle and several may not restart for weeks or months. Power stations are burning coal at a rate not seen since the 1980s. As electricity imports and prices soar, officials are having to deny that a cold snap could bring blackouts.
The cause of the crisis—possibly faulty reactor parts throughout EDF’s fleet—suggests it may not be easily contained. France’s nuclear regulator, the Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN), this summer ordered urgent tests of reactor parts, mostly bases of cylindrical steam generators. Inspectors are worried about high carbon levels found in steel forged by Creusot Forge, which is owned by Areva, another French firm, and by Japan Casting & Forging Corporation, a Japanese supplier. In some pieces carbon deposits are over 50% above permitted levels, risking fracture in case of a sudden change in the temperature of the steel.
The extent of faulty forge work is as yet unknown, as is whether Areva employees falsified data. ASN is clearly surprised that Areva failed to spot the problem. It is now auditing thousands of files stretching back over decades. More faults are likely to emerge, the regulator reckons.
The cost for EDF is rising. As well as lost earnings from shuttered plants, switching one generator (a reactor can have three) can take six months and cost €150m ($159m). And its decision in November finally to stump up €2.5bn for Areva Nuclear Power (most of Areva, including Creusot Forge) now seems rather like paying to swallow a highly radioactive dinner.
The two firms have one important joint project: a new European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), built by Areva and mostly run by EDF. Here too, forging faults are a problem: they were first found last year on the installed reactor vessel at Flamanville 3, a new EPR near Cherbourg. Another serious source of concern is safety-valve design.
The regulator will rule on Flamanville’s future in mid-2017. More tests or design changes may mean putting off its opening far beyond 2018.That would also deliver another blow to France’s reputation in nuclear power. The only other EPR in Europe, that at Olkiluoto, Finland, is years overdue and three times over budget.
Delays might also hinder EDF in its plan to build two EPRs at Hinkley Point, in Britain, for £24.5bn ($30.7bn). British loan guarantees need certain conditions to be met, and these reportedly include seeing Flamanville operate by 2020. Steve Thomas, an energy expert in London, concurs with the opinion of many in the nuclear-power industry when he calls the EPR a dud. EDF is pushing on regardless, but the financial strain is mounting. In March, EDF’s then chief financial officer, Thomas Piquemal, quit, calling Hinkley Point unaffordable.
The sense of crisis looks likely to grow. Yves Marignac, a nuclear-energy expert in Paris, calls EDF “already financially crippled”. Only state backing prevents EDF’s credit rating falling steeply, analysts say. And it is not only the ASN that has EDF in its sights. On November 22nd French competition officials raided its offices, seeking evidence that its dominant position is squeezing rivals and sending prices higher than they should be (even though lower electricity prices in recent years have sapped its revenues). Its share price has halved in two years.
The future looks bleak. Some four-fifths of French nuclear plants were built in a decade from the late 1970s. The plants have a 40-year lifespan, meaning that several a year face retirement over the next decade. Energy planners have assumed there will be extensions to 50 years or more. But the ASN may hesitate after the forging problems, or impose higher costs. Cyrille Cormier, a nuclear engineer who is now at Greenpeace, a campaign group that opposes nuclear power, says a total refit could cost EDF an extra €60bn-200bn.
Closing plants permanently would be extremely costly, too. France has never closed a large one. EDF may be under-provisioning the costs of decommissioning plants. It has set aside €36bn, less than the €45bn that Germany has allowed, even though France’s neighbour has a smaller nuclear fleet. Then there is nuclear waste. The five pools storing spent fuel at La Hague, Areva’s central reprocessing plant, are nearly full, says Mr Marignac. When sorrows come, they come in battalions.