French nuclear industry in trouble

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#501
02/11/1998
Article

(November 2, 1998) The French nuclear industry is not feeling well at the moment. Continued problems with the new N4 reactors, reports that nuclear can't survive without subsidies, nuclear sales of EdF are falling, and neighboring Germany saying it would phase out nuclear energy. And on top of it all, Dominique Voynet, the Green minister for environment, saying that France is slowly drifting away from nuclear.

(501.4939) WISE Amsterdam - In an interview with Liberation, Dominique Voynet says France is slowly shifting away from nuclear power and will replace aging reactors with non-nuclear energy, as they become obsolete. But she also said this would be more controversial and more difficult than Germany's. Asked if Prime Minister Lionel Jospin supported her idea of getting out nuclear power in France, she answered: "I cannot feel any ideological attachment to nuclear power in him. I think he possesses the intellectual curiosity and flexibility which make it easy to talk to him about subjects that aren't evident for the socialist party." Does she think that France, without saying it, is moving towards a nuclear phaseout? "I want to be clear," she answered, "there is no other country in the world where nuclear power has such a high percentage in the electricity production. France is steering towards another side, but slowly and with caution."
And the French nuclear industry has more difficulties.

French nuclear exports endangered?
Continued shutdown of nuclear reactors (Belleville 1+2, Chooz B1+2, Civaux 1) has forced Electricité de France (EdF) to reduce exports to the UK and Spain. It even had to import electricity from Spain, Germany and Switzerland. At the start of September, the Spanish utility Iberdrola signed a contract with EdF for the export of 450 MW to France over one year. Not long ago, EdF held a contract for the export of 1000 MW to Spain. It was, however, postponed and cancelled when EdF did not get a license to build a high-voltage power line across the Pyrenees. Exports to the UK via the cross- Channel interconnector dropped substantially this summer. Normally EdF exports about 6000 MegaWatt each day to foreign clients.
This spring it was said that EdF had a large surplus of power stations up to 2010, equaling at least five to seven large nuclear plants.
How come closure of only five of EdF`s 57 nuclear plants causes an electricity shortage? That does not sound very plausible...

EdF wants to show need for nuclear power
The policy of the EdF is pretty clear: it wants to convince the public and the politicians that new nuclear plants are needed urgently and that licenses to start Belleville and Chooz must be given to prevent a predicted winter shortage. It`s a good public relations campaign, but it's not very convincing to people who are informed. Jospin should have decided on the Belleville license by mid-September but the decision was postponed. Minister Voynet wanted them shut until they met "the letter of the law" which would take some time. Jospin, however, decided end of September to license restart of the two Belleville reactors. So Voynet lost this battle. The French safety commission DSIN is to approve the backfit and restart of the Chooz and Civaux reactors "only if we're sure there will be no problem"--so far, DSIN is not sure. In spite of this, the EdF has ordered replacement parts for the Reheater (RHR) and aims to restart Chooz-B1 & B2 by the end of 1998 or early next year.
EdF is taking a business risk, says DSIN, in proceeding with an unapproved design. Meanwhile, DSIN said it would decide in October if the RHR backfit would be acceptable. The EdF cannot yet guarantee the new RHR system for more than a few cycles of operation, but has already begun the backfit work without waiting for DSIN`s approval.

More troubles ahead
DSIN also asked the EdF to investigate whether the 900-MW reactor series (about 35 reactors) might be subject to similar fatigue- induced cracking as the Civaux and Chooz B reactors.
Meanwhile, the EdF has experienced more problems. At the Nogent-1 reactor, a fuel element got stuck during refueling preparations on August 19. The EDF has not managed yet to transfer the deformed element into the spent fuel pool. It is very difficult to get the deformed element through the fuel transfer canal. This was the first such accident in France, and has happened only four to five times in the US. Thus, the EdF consulted Westinghouse which had a tool ready for use in such situations. But the Westinghouse rig eventually proved misadapted to the Nogent situation, and the EdF asked Framatome to develop a specific tool. This episode would add more time to the three months outage period.

No need for new nuclear power
The latest official French energy planning study shows that the share of nuclear power would shrink in all of their three scenarios.
The study says new nuclear power would only be competitive with other options in a scenario with strong government intervention plus low discount rates. In the scenario in which investment decisions are left to the market, with an assumed 12% discount rate, the share of nuclear power in France's electricity supply could drop from 80% today to only 13% by 2020! The share of gas- fired plants would be 62% by 2020. So where is the need for new nuclear power in a liberalized electricity sector? That's a problem Mr. Bataille, the French nuclear expert, recognizes very well. He favors a new surtax on electricity to pay for the stranded costs of the EdF's nuclear program.

Nuclear can't survive without protection
In light of the very low KWh prices for the newest gas-fired combined-cycle power (12 French centimes=$0.02 per KWh), Bataille said "nuclear may be seriously handicapped" in the future market.
He is right: According to Nucleonics Week in March 1997, the EdF average KWh price was more than 40 centimes and average EdF export prices: 23.4 centimes.
The French parliament is to vote early next year on a government proposal to break the EdF`s monopoly, but the draft legislation now made public opens just a crack. It leaves the EdF in control of the national high-voltage grid, maintains government control over electricity regulation and opens the French electricity market only to the minimum allowed under the EU Internal Energy Market Directive. Next year, large customers (over 40 million KW a year) with together about 25% of the market, may buy from other suppliers than the EdF, which they would sure do. Electricity production costs in other countries are lower than in France, thanks to low gas prices and high-efficiency plants. The bill proposes the creation of a "general interest charge fund", to cover expenses borne today solely by the EdF. The fund would cover the EDF`s stranded costs, such as its investments into the Superphenix.

EdF: sales down
Business has not gone well this year. The EdF predicts a large drop in 1998 earnings, thanks to the warm weather and the closure of its five largest reactors. Power sales in 1998 are expected to bring in FF181.5 billion, five billion less than in 1997. Earnings over 1998 of FF 2.6 billion (US$456 million) are expected against FF4 billion last year--a 35% drop! Export sales are predicted at FF18.5 billion. The future does not look rosy for EdF--as long as they go nuclear. The EdF has one hope left: the government does all it can to protect the EdF and the French nuclear industry. On all foreign travels, to Russia, China or whereever on earth, the interests of the French nuclear industry are promoted and pushed on the highest levels.

Sources:

  • Nucleonics Week 20 March 1997
  • Le Canard Enchaine, 26 August 1998
  • Nucleonics Week, 10, 17, 24 September and 1 October 1998
  • Sortir du Nucleaire, 13 August 1998
  • Reuters, 23 October 1998

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