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Covid-19 strains French nuclear model

Workplace restrictions could hasten the decline of France’s fleet of baseload generators

Nowhere on earth embraced nuclear power as enthusiastically as France. In 2019, 70pc of its power output was fuelled by uranium rather than gas, coal or renewable sources.

But French nuclear power is not without problems. The two-decade long travails of new EPR technology has almost entirely stalled the build-out of new capacity to renew the country’s ageing fleet. The need for greater flexibility in thermal power as renewable capacity increases, as well as changing public opinion towards nuclear power, also raises questions for the future.

But France still assumes 50pc of its power output will come from nuclear plants in ten years’ time. The challenges posed by Covid-19 could change all that.

Throttling back

Electricity demand in France is mainly focused on the domestic sector, with industrial energy requirement much more reliant on gas than in many other European countries, says Alun Davies, a senior director at consultancy IHS Markit in London. Therefore, fluctuations in French power demand are driven more, in his view, by variables such as the weather than the impact of Covid-19. Relaxing lockdown should not cause a spike in power demand.

“The reductions in staffing, inspections, outages and necessary maintenance being implemented in response to the pandemic will inevitably lead to reduced nuclear safety at EdF facilities” Dorfman, UCL Energy Institute

Yet, “nuclear generation is taking the majority of the hit” in reduced French power output, which cannot then simply be tied to a response to lower demand due to Covid-19 restrictions. Nuclear output from the country’s largest generator EdF—in which the state still holds a stake of well over 80pc—in March was down by 13.8pc compared with a year earlier.

The company predicts that its reactors’ output will fall by more than a fifth year-on-year over 2020 as whole. It has also withdrawn all financial targets for 2020 and 2021. And it is facing open revolt from buyers of its nuclear power under the so-called Arenh contracts.

This mechanism allows competitors to EdF to buy output from nuclear plants at a price fixed at an auction. But the current auction price, set late last year, of over €40/MWh is well above the wholesale market price—leading buyers to make force majeure declarations and pursue court action against EdF for seeking to honour the contracts.     

Maintaining safety

Nuclear power plants—like all other generation assets, but more pointedly so due to the greater risks posed by industrial accidents—require a certain level of trained staff. Below minimum staffing thresholds, nuclear reactors must close.

EdF says it can run its plants with 40pc fewer staff for two-to-three weeks, and with 25pc fewer for up to three months. But there is “absolutely no question” that the pandemic creates the danger of a lack of trained staff, says Paul Dorfman, senior research fellow at the UCL Energy Institute in London, who has advised the French, British and Irish governments on nuclear policy. 

EdF categorically refutes the suggestion. Plant unavailability in Europe must be made public under the EU’s Remit regulation; i.e. a firm cannot take large power stations offline without telling the market it has done so. EdF “complies strictly with the Remit regulatory framework”, it says—in other words, it has not had to shut down more plants than it is admitting to. And “nuclear safety is EdF’s overriding priority”, the firm stresses.

€100bn – needed for existing reactors

EdF's response is standard,” says an unconvinced Dorfman. “The key concern is that the reductions in staffing, inspections, outages and necessary maintenance being implemented in response to the pandemic will inevitably lead to reduced nuclear safety at EdF facilities. That this is being done with the approval of the French nuclear regulators is not reassuring. And, to date, the ASN [French nuclear authority] has not provided a transparent framework to justify these decisions.”

Dorfman sees it as part of a wider trend. EdF has been postponing essential nuclear maintenance, and the ASN has allowed a “lax safety regime” to develop around these postponements, Dorfman contends. EdF and the regulators are “not being transparent about this”, he adds.

Longer-term pain

The pandemic “calls into question France’s nuclear reliance”, says Dorfman. But any short-term limitations to French nuclear operations could just accelerate a structural decline.

“Nuclear is clearly inflexible,” he warns, while ageing French reactors are now getting past their sell-by dates. Nor are they are not well equipped to quickly power up or down in a generation mix where renewables are playing a larger role.

“Nuclear cannot securely load-follow” in a context of rapidly changing and unpredictable demand for thermal power. Existing nuclear facilities will need €100bn just to remain operational, leaving aside adding any new capacity, he says.

And appetite to invest in nuclear in global capital markets is not strong. Governments that want to have nuclear as part of their mixes are increasingly going to have to provide the backing, either through financing or through imposing subsidies that safeguard returns, Dorfman predicts.

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