France has long been one of the world’s greatest champions of nuclear energy. France leads the European Union in nuclear production, with the most productive reactors in the bloc, and relies on nuclear power for a larger share of its energy mix than any other country in the world. It makes sense that France should lead the charge for nuclear energy development as they have long been the global poster child for safe and reliable nuclear energy – until now.
A recent flurry of unexpected issues at the Électricité de France (EDF), the state nuclear power operator representing the largest nuclear fleet in Europe, has caused French nuclear energy output to tumble to its lowest levels in 30 years. Around half of the EDF’s massive nuclear fleet has been taken offline, delivering a massive blow to the EU’s energy independence and security in the midst of a worldwide energy crisis.
France has become increasingly reliant on nuclear power in recent years. French President Emmanuel Macron has given nuclear energy an even bigger boost in his time in office. Indeed, in February, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he announced a €52 billion plan to revitalize the country’s “nuclear adventure.” He has also fought for the inclusion of the emissions-free power source as a “green investment” in the nomenclature of the European Union as the continent moves toward establishing its green energy budget for the coming years.
The European Union had hoped that France’s considerable nuclear power capacity would be key in allowing the bloc to move away from Russian energy as the West tries to shore up its energy independence and increase sanctions on the Kremlin in response to the Russian war in Ukraine. As recently as March of this year, the Council on Foreign Relations posited that nuclear power could be the answer to ending the continent’s crippling reliance on Russian energy. But now it might be the very thing that makes such a divorce impossible.
Until now, France has been relatively sheltered from the energy crisis squeezing its neighbors. But now the nuclear-reliant nation suddenly finds itself in the same boat as other energy-strapped European nations thanks to a “series of maintenance issues including corrosion at some of France’s ageing reactors, troubles at state-controlled energy group EDF and a years-long absence of significant new nuclear investment,” according to reporting from the Financial Times. The issues of corrosion, which are currently to blame for 12 of France’s 56 offline reactors, could take years to fix. Meanwhile, inflation is soaring and French electric bills have hit record highs.
“Instead of pumping vast amounts of electricity to Britain, Italy and other European countries pivoting from Russian oil,” writes The New York Times, “France faces the unsettling prospect of initiating rolling blackouts this winter and having to import power.” The incredibly bad timing of the EDF’s crisis is compounded with Putin’s recent slashing of natural gas exports to the EU, which have pushed countries such as Germany, Italy, Austria, and the Netherlands to a “bitter and reluctant return to coal.”
The contemporaneous collapse of French nuclear power generation capacity and Putin’s retaliatory cutback on energy exports to Europe spell out disaster and tragedy for the continent’s – and the world’s – decarbonization efforts. And even if France can get its nuclear fleet back up and running relatively quickly (a highly unlikely feat), it’s unlikely that the EU will be able to continue its planned coal phase-out, as the International Energy Agency warns that Russia may soon be cutting off its flow of natural gas to Europe entirely. While other countries including Romania will be bulking up their own nuclear energy capacity in the coming months and years, it looks like we’re on track for a banner year for coal and a devastating step back for global emissions targets.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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