By Liz Alderman
An army of engineers has fanned out through nuclear power plants across France in recent months, inspecting reactors for signs of wear and tear. Hundreds of expert welders have been recruited to repair problems found in cooling circuits. Stress tests are being conducted to check for safety problems.
As Europe braces for a winter without Russian gas, France is moving fast to repair a series of problems plaguing its atomic fleet. A record 26 of its 56 reactors are off-line for maintenance or repairs after the worrisome discovery of cracks and corrosion in some pipes used to cool reactor cores.
The crisis is upending the role that France has long played as Europe’s biggest producer of nuclear energy, raising questions about how much its nuclear power arsenal will be able to help bridge the continent’s looming crunch.
The state-backed nuclear power operator, Électricité de France, or EDF, which runs France’s nuclear power industry, said last week that it was working on an accelerated schedule to get all but 10 reactors running again by January, adding that there were no safety risks and that regulators were monitoring every step. President Emmanuel Macron’s government has been pressing the company to improve performance before freezing weather sets in.
The troubles facing EDF — a fresh outbreak of safety-related incidents, combined with unforeseen delays to the company’s repair schedule — could not be hitting at a worse time. In Russia, President Vladimir V. Putin’s tactic of withholding energy to punish countries supporting Ukraine is pushing Europe to transform how it generates and saves power. Countries are banding together to stock additional power supplies, while pushing out major conservation programs.
But France’s nuclear power crunch has become so acute that Mr. Macron is preparing to have the government take over the remaining 16 percent of EDF that it doesn’t already own, at a cost of nearly 10 billion euros ($10.3 billion).
The company, which is nearly €45 billion in debt, has tumbled further into financial difficulty and announced that its 2022 profit would drop by €29 billion because of the problems with its reactors, as well as a government effort to force EDF to provide artificially cheap electricity for households and businesses.
Even as EDF is rushing to comply with the demand for accelerated repairs, the company last week cut its 2022 nuclear power production forecast. The announcement caused the cost of French and European electricity to spike.
Herculean efforts to repair corrosion in pipes that cool the cores of four reactors were taking longer than expected, the company said. Those reactors now will not restart until January or February.
A strike late last month by French nuclear plant workers demanding higher wages to keep up with inflation was another blow. EDF said it was already behind in performing required maintenance on several aging reactors because of coronavirus lockdowns when the labor action put it further behind.
The company’s recent troubles began late last year, as it started moving through that backlog. The inspections unearthed alarming safety issues — especially corrosion and micro-cracks in systems that cool a reactor’s radioactive core — at an older-generation nuclear reactor in southwest France called Civaux 1. As EDF scoured its nuclear facilities, it found that 16 reactors, most of them newer-generation models, faced similar risks and closed them down.