War in Ukraine: reduced electricity production plunges France into the dark?

France is unlikely to produce enough nuclear power this winter to meet the needs of its European neighbors, which are struggling to find alternatives to Russian gas, and it may be forced to ration electricity to meet its own needs.

In the first half of the year, France lost – to Sweden – the position of the leading country that exports electricity in Europe, according to data from the company EnAppSys. France even became a net importer for the first time since records began in 2012, although it recently supplied 15% of total electricity production to countries in the region. French nuclear production is expected to fall this year to its lowest level in 30 years and nuclear power provides 70% of French electricity production.

The wholesale price of French electricity for 2023 broke a series of records, exceeding 1,000 euros per MWH in August against 70 euros a year ago. This price explosion is explained by the impact of the war in Ukraine, the surge in gas prices and the announcement of the postponement of the return to service of the four EDF nuclear reactors. “The rise in electricity prices poses a threat to the economy, with France’s nuclear issues seeming to be a bigger issue than Russia’s gas flow”said Norbert Rücker, head of research at Julius Baer.

A record number of 56 EDF reactors were shut down for maintenance operations or corrosion problems that emerged in December. Production restrictions were also introduced this summer due to heating of the water passages used to cool the reactors. As of August 29, 57% of nuclear production capacity was not used, according to data provided by EDF. According to the group’s schedule, generation levels are expected to recover to just under 50 gigawatts (GW) per day in December, from about 27 GW currently, as reactors gradually resume activity with winter. .

Fears of deliberate power cuts

But market watchers and union officials think this forecast is overly optimistic. In an average year, France produces about 400 TWH of nuclear electricity, exporting about 10% during the hottest months and importing during the winter as consumption rises. But EDF predicts that nuclear production will be 280 to 300 TWH in 2022 – the lowest level since 1993 – leading France to import electricity from Germany and Belgium from the summer. “So the sight of winter is dreadful”said Mycle Schneider, consultant in the nuclear energy sector.

Six analysts polled by Reuters estimated that winter power generation capacity would be below EDF’s forecast of 10 to 15 GW per day, at least until the end of January, meaning France would have to import and more electricity as the rest of Europe also faces power shortages or risks blackouts. According to a parliamentary source, current electricity prices illustrate the market’s lack of confidence in the group’s ability to restart all reactors during the winter even if the park’s production levels should improve.. “We need to restore many parts of the reactors that are no longer in use”in addition to this source. “We can also ask the French to make an effort, especially to reduce consumption peaks”. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne called on French companies on Monday to reduce their energy consumption because they will be the first to be affected in the event of rationing.

“For the winter 2022/2023, the situation is extremely worrying. (…) Announcing no load shedding is an optimistic bet, unless you know the weather, which have a mild temperature”, said Virginie Neumayer, representative of the CGT union at EDF. Although the electricity company has been able to significantly increase its production, analysts believe that the country does not have enough energy to sell to its gas-deprived neighbors in Russia. “Spain, the UK and Italy must increase their domestic production because the French export volumes are lower than normal”said Fabian Ronningen of the consultancy Rystad Energy. “I think Italy will be the most affected country (if France stops exporting) because it is the biggest importer of electricity in Europe”he added.

Meteorologists often consider La Niña, a climate phenomenon marked by an abnormally low temperature in the equatorial waters of the Pacific, as a sign of an earlier and colder than average winter. . The US National Weather Center estimates a 60% chance of this occurring during December-February. In the longer term, uncertainties about the capacity of EDF, in the process of renationalization, in the realistic maintenance of its aging nuclear fleet or in the quick replacement of its reactors. The president of the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) said in May that solving corrosion problems affecting some reactors could take years. The construction of EPR-type reactors at Flamanville (Manche) and at Hinkley Point, England, has accumulated years of delay and additional costs of several billion euros.

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