UK tipped to export even more energy to France despite blackout fears

Alison Hammond discusses potential blackouts

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A nuclear expert has warned that the UK may have to send more energy across the Channel to help keep the lights on in France. This is despite fears that Britain could be weeks away from its own shortages this winter. France has taken 16 of its 56 nuclear reactors offline due to corrosion issues, causing nuclear power output levels to plummet in recent months. Making matters worse, Paris confirmed last week that maintenance halts at two of Electricite de France SA’s reactors – and that it will last for an extra four months. It may also have to carry out lengthy repairs at seven other reactors next year, too.  

Under normal circumstances, France is a net exporter of energy, sending some of this to the UK via interconnectors. While the exchange of energy from the UK to France has been happening regularly for a number of months, Dr Paul Dorfman, a nuclear expert from Sussex University, has warned that the UK could ramp up its exports to France, despite its own domestic energy issues.

He told “The French nuclear fleet is in a very bad way and it continues to be in a very bad way. It seems increasingly clear that France will preference powering France to exporting any electricity. 

“They are importing power from Germany. They are hoping to even import more power from the UK, which sounds deeply troubling. We can’t afford to do that. There comes a point at which one sees very clearly what is happening and we are reaching that point.” 

This comes after National Grid ESO, the UK’s network operator, warned in its Winter Outlook that it may have to roll out planned blackouts in the “deepest, darkest” nights in January in February if it fails to shore up enough energy imports from Europe. 

While National Grid stresses that this is an “unlikely worst-case scenario”, Russia may well cut off the rest of Europe’s gas, while the declining levels of France’s power output also makes it unlikely that the UK will receive as much nuclear exports from France as usual. Households may be subject to three-hour power cuts between 3pm-7pm so the network operator can balance the grid when demand is high. 

Dr Dorfman warned: “We are at the beginning of winter. We don’t know where the Russian invasion of Ukraine will go. France’s housing stock is badly insulated and the French are only just coming to grips with the issue of energy. They don’t really understand where they are at with electricity and power.”

Prior to these issues, 70 percent of France’s electricity was generated by nuclear, which originally appeared to make it less vulnerable to the Russian gas crisis, which sent bills soaring across Europe. 

According to Bloomberg, its reactors are now running at just over two-thirds of typical capacity, meaning more of its electricity will have to come from expensive gas. Dr Dorfman said this has laid bare the flaws in Paris’ hedging of its bets on nuclear.

He said: “France was nuclear supposed to be the par-excellence, post-war top dogs thinking they were going to generate all this cheap power and had a vast quantity of nuclear reactors dotted all around France. But what is happening now is that its chickens are coming home to roost. 

“EDF is €43billion in debt and it is facing a €100billion bill for mandatory safety upgrades. A significant number of its ageing reactors are offline and continue to be offline, and it now faces a gargantuan decommissioning and waste management bill that is uncosted. 

“All France’s nuclear reactors are going to come offline at the same time – this business about France having par-excellence is now wearing thin. It is now a net importer of power.

“France is in a catastrophic situation in terms of the vast debt that it owes itself to nuclear and the existential waste and decommissioning problem that it hasn’t costed and is facing.”

Back in October, French President Emmanuel Macron moved to nationalise EDF “in a panic”, according to Dr. Dorfmanm, as he scrambled to address the nuclear outages which saw France’s power generation plummet to a 30 year low. The French state already had an 84 percent stake in the firm prior to the move.

According to Reuters, EDF has debts of over €40billion, but is also seeking to roll out an ambitious new reactor construction programme that will require around €50billion in investments.

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And the Financial Times reports that the plunging production levels could wipe €29billon off EDF’s core profits this year due its purchasing of supplies on wholesale markets. Jean-Paul Harreman of energy consultancy EnAppSys, told the publication: “It’s absolutely crucial that EDF get their act together and that the nuclear capacity gets back online.”

In the meantime, the UK may have to come to Paris’ aid. Last week, it already provided a helping hand when it approved a request from EDF to slash its exports to the UK in half, coinciding with an order from National Grid to put two coal-fired power units at the Drax power plant on standby.

Simon Cran-McGreehin, head of analysis at the Energy, Climate and Intelligence Unit, told that France’s nuclear issues will in fact mean that it might have to request more imports from Britain, despite usually supplying more power to the UK. 

He said: “There’s less nuclear available on the continent, and so they’ll have less for us to import and they’ll be looking for more UK exports.” 

However, the UK has already been exporting some energy to France to help out, with nuclear issues first having surfaced in April. Katheryn Porter, an energy consultant from Watt Logic previously told “Both countries may seek to rely on imports to meet demand this winter. Since the problems with some French nuclear reactors were identified in April, Britain has consistently exported to France, while importing from Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands.” 

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