Interconnector gives Ireland a stake in France’s fraught nuclear debate

The bill for modernising 54 ageing reactors is currently estimated at €100bn

 The construction of the third-generation pressurised water reactor  at Flamanville in northwestern France. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

The construction of the third-generation pressurised water reactor at Flamanville in northwestern France. Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

 

On October 2nd, 2018, the European Commission agreed to provide €530 million (56 per cent of the total cost) for an Ireland-France 700MW Celtic electricity interconnector. France can export cheap base-load nuclear electricity surpluses along this interconnector, while Irish wind-generated power can flow in the opposite direction.

However, French nuclear policy is a mess. The bill for modernising its ageing reactors is currently estimated at €100 billion, a figure that can only rise.

France’s first commercial nuclear plants were commissioned in the 1960s. Construction was boosted following the 1974 oil shock, with 54 pressurised water reactors (PWR) commissioned between 1978-1991, with a programmed life span of 40 years.

At the heart of the problem is that Europe’s once highly-skilled nuclear industry has wasted away since the 1990s

The ageing reactors are due to be replaced by EPR reactors jointly developed by France’s Areva and Siemens of Germany. EPR is third-generation pressurised water reactor technology.

The first EPR project was the 2005 Olkiluoto 3 plant in Finland, followed by the 2007 Flamanville plant in Normandy, France. They will both take four times as long to build and cost between three and four times their original estimates – Olkiluoto is due to start operating from 2020 having cost nearly €9 billion and Flamanville in 2023 for €12.4 billion.

The world’s first two operational EPR reactors opened in Taishan, China, last year. These two 1,750MW plants cost €3.5 billion each, and took nine years to build.

On October 28th, the French government received a damning 34-page report on the Flamanville nuclear project. Jean-Martin Folz, former head of carmaker Peugeot, was, at the behest of the government, tasked by Électricité de France (EDF) with producing a “no-holds barred” review of the Flamanville project in July 2019. He submitted a chillingly realistic report.

Some key elements of the Flamanville plant are defective. Repairing or replacing them will involve partial demolition of the plant. It might now prove cheaper to simply abandon it.

Wasted away

At the heart of the problem is that Europe’s once highly-skilled nuclear industry has wasted away since the 1990s. We no longer have enough experienced nuclear contractors, engineers, welders and technicians. This problem also bedevils the €22 billion Hinkley Point project in the UK.

Despite this EDF remains committed to new plants. Le Monde published an internal EDF note on November 9th on the company’s plans to build a further six EPR plants for €7 billion apiece.

The French minister for energy, Élisabeth Borne, moved quickly to publicly distanced herself from this position. She told the Political Questions show on national television that it was “not a view I share”.

Borne, an engineer and former head of the Paris RATP transit authority, went on to underline that the “option of 100 per cent renewable electricity had not been sufficiently studied”.

Borne is a respected technocrat. When she calls on EDF to “reflect on its role in a 100 per cent renewable situation” she means business.

She confirmed that no decisions on nuclear plants would be taken before mid-2021, and that “no new nuclear plants will be approved until Flamanville is operational”.

France has fallen behind in the installation of renewable power. Successive governments have chopped and changed in their approaches, denying renewable developers clear long-term perspectives. Less than 40 per cent of projects approved under a national tendering system since 2010 have actually been built.

President Giscard d’Estaing argued in 1974 that 'France does not have oil but it has ideas'. Macron now needs to embrace 'ideas'

Planning approval systems where every project is processed separately on a narrow basis create an additional obstacle. The fact that certain project technology has been approved in, say, Normandy offers no guarantee that an identical project will get the go-ahead in Burgundy.

Full planning approval on a very restricted technical basis takes over five years. Minor changes in processes and equipment can mean that planning approval is no longer valid, and the developer has to either begin again or abandon the project. This has been fatal for many renewable projects where available technologies evolve between the planning application and construction.

Cumbersome and therefore expensive procedures act as barriers to local projects and the involvement of regional and local authorities or co-operatives.

Administrative culture

Realisation of significant renewable energy projects in France will require a shift in French administrative culture. The financial costs may be relatively low, but more than one reform has foundered on the rocks of French administrative immobility.

If France is to expand its renewable sector from its current 18 per cent it needs to achieve two things – boost the European transmission grid and simplify procedures for renewable energies in France.

The French government needs to decide just what kind of electricity mix it wants, what France needs, and what the French electorate will accept by mid-2021, with the debate closed by the May 2022 presidential elections.

Paris could decide on a number of new EPR plants for around €10 billion apiece, invest to extend the working life of its current reactors, or significantly facilitate renewable energies and storage capacity.

President Giscard d’Estaing argued in 1974 that “France does not have oil but it has ideas”. Macron now needs to embrace “ideas”.

One 700MW connector can almost replace one nuclear reactor. A second Franco-Irish interconnector could now be on the cards.

Tony Kinsella is an entrepreneur and commentator. He divides his time between Ireland and southwest France

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