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AB 2000 studies

Alain Boublil Blog


French nuclear industry : the great mess

European Commission has just announced the launch of a detailed inquiry regarding Areva restructuration. That’s all if needed. If there is one achievement France can be rightly proud about, along with high-speed trains and communication networks, it is its nuclear power production. It allowed us, since we don’t have any oil, natural gas or coal, to improve our trade balance, without emitting CO2 and providing consumers with unbeatable prices. Our German and Italian neighbors are paying for it between 50 and 80% more. So, for the last four years, this activity is undergoing constant political attacks. Areva which produces essential components for nuclear plants and providing them with fuel is going through an unprecedented crisis. Its client, EDF, is weakened to the point it must ask the State for a capital increase, which is also without any precedent. The State, yet, is totally responsible for the current situation. After a 25 years faultless course, which started with the building of the first pressurized water nuclear plants until Areva creation which merged activities related to the building and the maintenance of the plants with those related to the nuclear fuel cycle, has come an uninterrupted succession of mistakes made by successive governments.

There was, first, the refusal, during ten years, to launch the construction, in France, of the 3rd generation EPR reactor, which design had been elaborated to cope with some risks identified after Tchernobyl disaster. Framatome and Siemens teams, which were partners in this project, did work for nothing. They had to face with a long time inactivity, with the risk of losing essential know how. Confronted with this situation, Areva, which was at that time, Framatome parent company, supported by Siemens which could sale its turbine through that deal, took the opportunity provided by Finnish utility, TVO, to build its first EPR in Olkiluoto, at the end of 2003. And the State, making a second costly mistake, let it do it, when it definitely knew that the company never managed the construction of a nuclear plant. Areva could provide its client with the nuclear components. But only EDF had the expertise to place orders to appropriate companies and follow up the works. A nuclear plant looks a little like a car. And it is not because you know how to produce the engine that you can make the body and the assembly. The consequence has been a financial disaster Areva has yet to pay.   As another mistake, the State has authorized Areva to acquire, with a huge cost, mines in Niger. Courts will say if the acquisition was fraudulent, but, anyway, the deal was not examined with sufficient rigor. And the worst had yet to come. Since 2012, the State launched an anti-nuclear crusade, with, as its first target, Fessenheim nuclear plant.

The age of a nuclear plant has nothing to do with its safety and the only competent authority to decide the issue is the Nuclear Safety Authority, which is independent from the State. Yet, the NSA never put in doubt the ability of Fessenheim nuclear plant to operate in safe conditions. The actual inquiry about its steam generators is a usual process and if there are problems with them, they will be replaced. The nuclear plant is profitable and  delivers electricity, along with EDF, to Swiss and German clients. To stop it would generate substantial losses and would require a compensation for those who have signed long term contracts. It would be contrary to EDF interests. The only possible way, since EDF is a private listed company, would be its nationalization, or, at least, the acquisition, by the State, with an appropriate price paid beforehand, of the Fessenheim plant, including the transfer of the cost of its demolition. We are far from that. This anti-nuclear crusade went further with the adoption of an inconsistent and unenforceable “energy transition bill”, regarding its provisions related to power production. To set for it an arbitrary ratio related to “2025 horizon” makes no sense even if the term is vague. During a year, what determines the production mix is the level of demand, its geographical repartition and meteorological conditions which impact hydroelectric, solar and wind productions. But these parameters are impossible to forecast. And, except if you switch off electricity, if these conditions are not fulfilled, the target assigned by the law cannot be reached. Lawmakers, to post their support to renewable energies, should have based their bill on capacities mix instead of power production mix at a given horizon, which would have been consistent with the provisions of the text related to programming. Investments are decided through programming, not the sharing of the diverse production sources during a given year. Last but not least, the fixing in a law of a nuclear capacity ceiling is possible only if it doesn’t create, a monopoly, in this case, EDF monopoly. We can be surprised by the fact that Constitutional court, ordinary so vigilant, didn’t bring up by itself this disposition to cancel it.  

These new prospects have aggravated Areva and EDF situation, but announced remedies are more harm than good. To transfer to EDF the whole “reactor business” is an awkward return to passed times, 40 years ago, when Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique had to abandon the construction of the nuclear components to Framatome. The coming under EDF management of the maintenance and the production of industrial components of the nuclear block, doesn’t make any sense. And the merger, announced a year and half ago has not yet be completed since, EDF, rightly, refuses to carry the risks of the Finnish disaster, and these two issues cannot be split. It should have been much more sensible to limit the transfer to engineering activities related to the design of new models. The upgrading of the EPR and the conception of a new model, with a 1000MWe power for instance, to extend the range French industry is able to supply, eventually through a partnership with a Japanese or a Chinese firm, would have given a strategic dimension to the restructuration. In this context, the transfer to General Electric of nuclear plants turbines maintenance constitutes a new risk and has been already the case for a sharp controversy. GE initially was not interested in taking this business and has denounced some provisions in former contracts between Alstom and EDF.

The last source of worry is related to the persistence in supporting Hinkley Point project, with its heavy financial risks, especially since the Brexit vote and which will create almost no jobs in France. If the purpose is to give jobs to the engineering teams, let’s wait for an improved EPR design is certified, including the lessons of the Finnish, French and Chinese sites and let’s build it in France. Our country has no interest in paying for providing energy independence to England. Our next political leaders will have, among their priorities, to rewrite an energy policy which strengthens our industry, instead of weakening it, which guarantees our independence and which contributes to keep France among the best pupils in Europe regarding CO2 emissions.


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