Beconomy minister Robert Habeck (Greens) has explicitly explained the extension of the service life of two German nuclear power plants with the supply situation in France. “More than half of the nuclear power plants there are not connected to the grid, so there is a lack of electricity, which Germany compensates for in part with electricity from gas-fired power plants,” he said on Tuesday evening.
This statement is not entirely correct, but it is broadly correct. In fact, of the 56 French nuclear reactors on Tuesday, 27 were producing no electricity and one was producing electricity at reduced capacity. The main reasons are routine maintenance work, which was partly delayed due to the corona pandemic, as well as repair and control work on twelve systems due to corrosion or suspected corrosion. The latter refers to small cracks in the pipes of the safety injection system that were found during a ten-year inspection.
Heat, drought and cooling problems
Nevertheless, Habeck’s statements are surprising. Referring to the stress test of the French transmission system operator, he explained that the data in the neighboring country “have continued to fall in recent weeks”. That is only partly true. First, the heat and drought-related cooling problem at some French nuclear power plants, a third difficulty along with maintenance and repair work, has subsided since the end of the summer.
Secondly, the analysis by the French network operator RTE was published on September 13th, i.e. almost two weeks ago, and it has calmed the fears of many observers rather than exacerbated them further. “In no case is there a risk of a ‘blackout’ in France, that is, a complete loss of control over the electricity system,” RTE wrote in this analysis, predicting that winter power cuts would be offset by a 1 to 5 percent reduction in consumption in the central and up to 15 percent could be avoided in the most extreme scenario. Extreme situations in which all unfavorable coincidences such as extreme cold would accumulate are therefore “not the most likely”.
“The work is progressing well”
Thirdly, at the beginning of September, the French government referred to a roadmap from the operator of the French nuclear power plants Electricity de France (EDF), which provides for the restart of those reactors that are currently shut down for maintenance and corrosion work. Most of them should be back online by Christmas, three more in January and the remaining two by February 18th.
Habeck is right that EDF’s statements “have often turned out to be too positive in the past”. This has been the case regularly in recent months and also applies to the recently mentioned ramp-up schedule for the reactors that are currently shut down. The Bugey 2 plant on the Loire should actually have gone online on September 21st, but EDF is now talking about October 3rd. Gravelines 3 on the English Channel should actually be producing electricity again this week Thursday instead of October 14th.
However, market participants were no longer quite so pessimistic of late. At the end of August, a megawatt hour still cost more than 1100 euros on the French market for short-term deliveries, but since the beginning of September it has been around 600 euros. “The work on the nuclear power plant fleet in connection with the corrosion problems is making good progress,” asserted the outgoing EDF boss Jean-Bernard Lévy in a Senate hearing in mid-September, referring to the Tricastin 3 reactor block on the Rhone as an example. The work there has been completed, and as of now, the system is scheduled to go back on the grid on October 24th.
In short: the condition of the French nuclear power plants is anything but reassuring, nuclear power production is expected to fall to a 30-year low this year and imports from Germany have been significantly higher in recent months than in previous years – and of all times in the largest energy crisis for decades. However, the fact that the data, as Habeck said, “have continued to develop downwards in recent weeks” is not true.