France dims the lights as nuclear energy crisis bites
Updated 20:31, 16-Jan-2023
Mark Webster in Paris

The French nuclear industry is in crisis, with a quarter of its 56 civil nuclear reactors undergoing maintenance and the fear that in turn could lead to power outages over the winter. 

While EDF, the largely state-owned company which runs the plants has publicly stated it can resolve the problems, the French prime minister Elisabeth Borne is preparing a strategy to deal with possible blackouts.

Nuclear power is France's fuel lifeline, delivering up to 70 percent of its daily electricity needs and turning it into Europe's biggest exporter of electricity. 

But since the discovery last year of major corrosion issues in some of its aging reactors, output is currently down by a third.

Despite importing around 100 specialists from the U.S. and Canada to help with the remedial work at the plants, there are still anxieties that the country will not be able to cope with winter demand. 

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The problems with the reactors have also restricted France's ability to export electricity to other European countries – particularly Italy and the UK – which in the past have generated up to €3 billion ($315 billion)  in revenues.

At the heart of the problem is France's aging fleet of 56 nuclear power plants, with an average age of 37 years. Investment in the plants had been slowed by a decision in 2014 to reduce France's dependence on nuclear energy to only half its total needs. 

The energy crisis at home and the soaring price of liquefied natural gas following the Ukraine conflict has forced the French government into a radical rethink.

Six new reactors are planned and one is already under construction in a $55 billion program announced this year. Another eight nuclear power plants are under discussion.

But the immediate focus is what happens this winter. Despite EDF's reassurances on security of supply, the French government is putting together a plan to share any power cuts evenly and to protect essential services such hospitals and schools.

At the same time, French consumers have been urged to reduce their consumption of energy – particularly at peak times – to avoid the danger of power cuts to homes and industries.

Even in the French capital Paris, the impact of energy shortages is already being felt. The lights on the Eiffel Tower and on the premier shopping street – the Champs Elysees – are being switched off early every night. 

That may not do much for pre-Christmas cheer but the government is confident it will be more acceptable to the French public than a series of rolling blackouts.

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