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France Prepares for Targeted Blackouts If Energy Crisis, Cold Winter Strain Grid – WSJ

The contingency plan would cut power to some customers during peak hours, as the country struggles to repair nuclear reactors

France normally relies on nuclear power for more than 70% of its electricity. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

Matthew Dalton, WSJ

PARIS
EnergiesNet.com 11 30 2022

France has prepared a contingency plan to conduct rolling blackouts this winter if its electrical grid comes under severe stress, officials said, as the country struggles to ramp up its fleet of nuclear reactors after a rash of outages.

Corrosion discovered on pipes near the cores of several reactors led France to take more than half of them offline earlier this year, causing a sharp drop in nuclear generation. The outages have compounded Western Europe’s energy woes as the region grapples with a sharp cut in natural-gas deliveries from Russia amid the conflict over Ukraine. Twenty-two of France’s 56 nuclear reactors are currently offline, according to government data.

That has left France facing the possibility it won’t have enough power generation in January, when electricity demand peaks to heat households. The country normally relies on nuclear power for more than 70% of its electricity.

Officials said they would issue an alert three days ahead of an episode of particularly cold weather urging industrial and residential customers to cut their electricity consumption. If demand doesn’t fall enough and France can’t make up the difference with electricity imports from other countries, officials said they would cut electricity to relatively small groups of customers to avoid widespread blackouts.

“Before that happens, the last tool available is to cut electricity temporarily for some French, on part of the territory,” an official said.

Europe’s natural-gas storage facilities are almost completely full, easing short-term fears about gas shortages. The corrosion problem, however, has emerged as Western Europe’s key energy worry in the coming months.

The French government was alerting prefectures across the country to prepare to look after people with medical conditions who are hospitalized at home if they face power cuts. The cuts would happen during peak demand, generally from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., officials said.

EDF SA, France’s state-controlled power company, has taken longer than expected to bring the reactors back online because of the difficulty of the repairs and labor unrest that delayed maintenance work.

Suspicions of corrosion led EDF to take around 12 reactors offline starting late last year. EDF accelerated scheduled maintenance on a number of other reactors this summer to ensure they would be available this winter, given uncertainty about when the corrosion repairs would be completed.

But this fall, EDF workers went on strike seeking bigger salary increases to compensate them for inflation, delaying the maintenance work that EDF sought to accelerate.

Fixing the corrosion is taking longer than expected because of the difficulty of the work. Welders must operate within the radioactive containment area of the reactors, capping the time they can spend there because of radiation exposure limits. The restart dates of several reactors have slipped in recent weeks from November and December to the end of January and February.

EDF has brought in dozens of welders from Westinghouse Electric Co., the U.S. nuclear engineering company, to accelerate the work. France’s nuclear reactors are based on a design licensed from Westinghouse. Officials have said the corrosion problem is likely due to modifications to the design that were introduced in France’s newer reactors. The corrosion problem was initially discovered at Civaux, France’s youngest nuclear power plant.

EDF is one of Western Europe’s most important power generators. The company normally exports large amounts of low-carbon electricity to neighboring countries, helping stabilize power prices across the region. This year, France has become a net importer of electricity. French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne last week announced an agreement on electricity imports with Germany, aiming to ensure the country has enough power for the winter.

Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com

wsj.com 11 30 2022

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