Power prices are surging across Europe, reaching record highs over the past few weeks. The reason? State-owned French utility EDF is facing required inspections and having trouble getting approval to restart many of its nuclear reactors, limiting Europe’s energy supply and fueling fears of a French energy crisis this winter.
In October, French nuclear power regulator ASN requested to inspect 12 reactors operated by EDF, France’s largest power provider, which held high levels of carbon. In order to perform the tests, the reactors would need to be shut down completely. The tests come as part of a search for faulty components made by AREVA’s Le Creusot forge that are susceptible to gather large amounts of carbon, which can lead to weakened steam generators that could crack and cause widespread damage. Most of the safety checks were performed during regularly scheduled outages, therefore not causing any hiccups to the normal power creation. However, five of the reactors were required to be shut down and inspected during times they would normally be working at full capacity.
News came this week EDF would have to push back restarting some of the reactors: It had previously planned to restart five reactors around the end of November, but has now pushed back the start date to the end of December. ASN also ordered additional safety inspections of 12 other reactors, further limiting the power that can be created in the region.
“EDF is doing its best to have the maximum number of reactors online, although as of today, ASN has not authorized us to restart some the reactors despite our request,” said EDF CEO Jean-Bernard Levy. “We believe these reactors can be operational, but ASN does not agree. They have asked for more information before making a decision, thus the late start of some reactors than what we had initially planned until a couple of days ago.”
After the announcement of prolonged outages, French power prices surged to near-record highs. EDF also cut its nuclear power output and EBITDA for the rest of 2016 and could continue to cut output estimates for 2017 if the cuts are prolonged. Despite the financial changes, EDF maintains that its reactors are safe and operational.
“The safety margins are very large and the carbon content does not undermine integrity or security, even in the case of an accident,” said an EDF spokesperson.
The issue has a greater impact than just France, however, as the country is the largest electricity Europe and draws 75% of its power from its 58 reactors. EDF operates 58 reactors, 19 of which are currently out of service. This cut represents 30% of France’s installed nuclear capacity, which can have a huge impact on the country and the region. With a large portion of those reactors out of commission, it is difficult to create enough energy, especially as the dark, cold winter months roll in.
Weather and the Power
To add to the power problem, rainfall this year in France has been lacking, which cancels out hydropower as an alternative. Although the country recently implemented the COP21 carbon emission agreement, France is still turning to coal and other fossil fuels to provide enough energy. The country is burning coal at the highest level it has in the last 32 years. France is also importing power from other countries, largely from Germany and Japan.
Many experts also warn that the results of the ASN tests show that EDF should plan for longer maintenance periods in the future to allow for more periodic tests. The average French reactor is more than 30 years old, which makes it more likely to have damage or other maintenance issues. Instead of waiting for more issues like this to arrive, experts say, EDF should extend scheduled closings to ensure the reactors are safe before starting them up again on their own schedule.
The potential power crisis in France shines a light on another issues with nuclear power, which has been questioned in recent years. If these safety issues can’t be resolved fairly quickly, the entire industry could be affected, and changes could be put in place.