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French utility chief urges France to boost nuclear output

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The load factor of nuclear reactors – their output in relation to their energy capacity – needs improving, CEO of electricity and gas supplier E-Pango Philippe Girard told an event organised by Euractiv on France’s energy mix on Monday (3 October).

French grid operator RTE estimates the country’s nuclear production will reach 360, or evem 400 TWh per year according to its latest outlook for the French energy mix between now and 2035.

This comes as a relief to France and the EU after a chaotic 2022, marked by the energy crisis and the closure of some French reactors for safety reasons, due to corrosion of the cooling elements.

As a result, production for the year was around 280 TWh, far from the annual average of 415 TWh recorded between 2005 and 2015 – and France has announced that it will increase its nuclear capacity with between six and 14 new reactors by 2050.

But France could move much faster by increasing the output of existing reactors, Girard argued at a Euractiv event on Monday.

Increasing the load factor

Increasing output can be achieved by improving the nuclear load factor, he added.

The load factor is the ratio between the capacity of a power plant and the actual energy that is produced by it over a given period.

In France, for instance, the load factor has fallen from 78% in 2005, when annual production was around 415 TWh, to 52% in 2022 (280 TWh).

While this decline is partly due to a reduction in electricity consumption by energy-intensive sectors, it is also linked to older factors, such as the modulation of production according to demand that began in the 1980s. Not to mention that corrosion problems have been known for some time, explains Girard.

On top of this, France also experienced a rise in outages for maintenance and refuelling.

“Those in charge should have understood that the problem that really erupted in 2022 was the result of years of deterioration in the performance of the French nuclear industry,” says Girard.

But while the premature ageing of reactors is not a problem unique to France, the country is more or less alone regarding long refuelling and maintenance times, Girard added.

By comparison, while the global refuelling average is two to four weeks, the average load factor for nuclear power plants in the US is 91%.

If France were to achieve this load factor level, its production could reach around 480 TWh, which would theoretically correspond to 13 additional reactors with a load factor similar to that of 2005 (78%). This is one reactor short of the French government’s ambitions.

So what can be done?

While reducing downtime and increasing the amount of energy extracted from the fuel could be a viable option, they will only work if they are accompanied by a calming of relations between EDF and the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), argues Girard.

“In the US, operators and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) began a dialogue several years ago to normalise their relations,” Elina Teplinsky, a lawyer and partner at the international energy law firm Pillsbury, said at the event.

The result: the load factor has risen sharply.

Consequence on prices?

Moreover, better management of nuclear power generation would lower electricity prices.

In the EU electricity market, the so-called “merit order” principle means that the wholesale price for all electricity is set by the thermal power plant that has to operate at the highest cost.

As a result, the less low-carbon electricity there is in the system, the higher the price.

Consequently, it is not the pricing of electricity on the EU market that is to blame, “as some have suggested”, but rather the production mechanisms, Etienne Beeker, energy consultant at France Strategie, said during the event.

What’s more, a low load factor reduces the profitability of nuclear power, which in turn affects bankers’ confidence in financing new reactors, Girard also explained.

With better load factors, the situation would, in many ways, be more acceptable to Europeans facing high electricity prices.

In nuclear-powered Bulgaria, for example, “people may not be ready to vote for additional spending on nuclear development if electricity prices continue to rise,” conservative MEP Radan Kanev (EPP) said during the event.

In other words, current electricity prices could discourage the development of new energy sources that require investments, such as those needed for nuclear power plants.

The positions of E-Pango on the future of nuclear in France have been highlighted in a recent op-ed by Philippe Girard.

[Edited by Daniel Eck/Nathalie Weatherald]

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