France restarts coal plants as cracking nuclear fleet drives a crisis


In response to an emerging electricity shortage this winter, France is restarting permanently closed coal-fired electricity plants. France’s energy crisis is part of a broader predicament across Europe ignited by sanctions against Russia for its invasion of sovereign Ukraine. Russia cut off its natural gas pipeline to France on June 15, 2022. But France now finds its electricity problem uniquely exacerbated because of its heavy reliance on nuclear power (70%). Regardless of nationality, because of nuclear power’s inherent hazards, exorbitant cost and harsh operational environment, it is proving to be more of a liability than an asset in times of natural disaster and national crisis. France’s state-owned nuclear industry is now experiencing prolonged outages because of unexpected generic age-degradation in critical reactor safety systems.

Of France’s 56 commercial nuclear power plants 32 have been taken offline either for extended maintenance or evaluation of safety risks after discovery of generic stress corrosion cracking affecting the French reactors’ primary cooling system piping made of stainless steel. The French nuclear regulator says that returning these reactors to reliable operation will require a “large scale” plan and “several years” while more reactors may be halted due to the same unanticipated corrosion cracking in the safety-related piping and dissimilar weld material. French nuclear experts have said that the projected calendar for finding and repairing the deteriorating reactors is ambitious. Once the degree of cracking is is bounded and tallied, the repair task will be difficult given that the work on corroded pipes must be performed in high radiation zones inside the plants. Worker safety and protection rules limit how long welders can spend on the job because of the radiation exposure.

To compensate for this vulnerability in nuclear power stations and loss of electricity generation, French power authorities have announced in the lead up to the winter of 2022-2023 that the nation is reopening permanently closed coal-fired plants in Saint-Avold, Lorraine and Emile-Huchet. French authorities are saying that coal-fired operations are anticipated to “initially be limited to the end of 2023.”

“We know we pollute,” said one worker returning to his job at the Emile-Huchet coal plant. “We have dug up a corpse,” he said, looking back on the 210,000 tons of coal now stored on the reopened site.

Meanwhile, the unanticipated cracking in the nation’s nuclear power stations has led French President Emmanuel Macron to caution against basing France’s future energy plans on renewing the operating licenses for its aging nuclear fleet to 60 years. The Wall Street Journal October 23, 2022 update noted, “The nuclear fleet was designed to act as the front line of France’s energy security. Since Moscow cut the flow of natural gas to Europe—plunging the continent into its biggest energy crisis since the 1970s oil shock—France’s vaunted nuclear fleet has been about as effective as the Maginot Line, the French fortifications that did little to stop the German invasion during World War II.”


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