French nuclear power struggles in a cold snap

FRANCE - France, which gets 85% of its electricity from nuclear power, has long been proud of the system’s reliability and its benefits to French consumers, who pay some of the lowest electric rates in the world.

But the system also has shortcomings, as became evident when a cold snap sent electricity demand soaring.

RTE, the state-controlled electricity distribution network, is warning of possible blackouts in some regions because of unseasonably cold temperatures. “The electrical system is strained,” the group said in a recent press release.

Although France frequently exports surplus power to neighboring countries, in recent days it has had to import from Germany.

A key reason for the problem is that eight of the country’s 58 nuclear reactors, all run by state utility Electricité de France, are shut down for maintenance and refueling. Why not schedule such routine tasks in spring or autumn, when demand is lower? Well, that was EDF’s plan – but the schedule was disrupted because of worker protests at some plants.

That’s not the only problem. EDF has forecast that France this year will produce 9% less nuclear power than it did in 2008, mainly because of unscheduled shutdowns for repairs. As many as one-third of the utility’s reactors have been out of service simultaneously this year. EDF’s new boss, Henri Proglio, admits that the system’s reliability has suffered in recent years because of under-investment in maintenance and new technologies.

At the same time, the country’s relatively low electric rates have encouraged consumers to use more electricity. Some 7 million French households have electric heating, far more than any other European country. When the temperature drops, quite naturally, they crank up the heat.

Is nuclear power to blame for these difficulties? Strictly speaking, no: Gas and coal-fired plants also can be unreliable if they aren’t properly maintained. But France’s near-total dependence on nuclear reactors, which require more-meticulous care and have to be restarted gradually after shutdowns, makes it especially vulnerable to such problems.


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