How EDF benefits from the green label for nuclear energy

Status: 01/24/2022 2:18 p.m

The fact that the EU wants to classify investments in nuclear energy as sustainable is entirely in line with France’s interests. It mainly uses the French state-owned company and nuclear power producer EDF.

By Julia Borutta, ARD Studio Paris

The nuclear industry employs around 200,000 people in France, making it the third largest industry in the country. Almost 70 percent of the electricity is produced by nuclear power. Nuclear energy is to remain a mainstay in France’s energy mix in the future. This is the only way to achieve the climate goals, said President Emmanuel Macron in October last year.

Julia Borutta
ARD-Studio Paris

He announced that he would have new pressurized water reactors built in France. In addition, he wants to invest one billion euros in the development of new types of small, so-called “small modular reactors”. They are all to be designed and built by the Électricité de France (EDF) group, which is 84 percent owned by the French state.

EDF boss praises advantages of nuclear energy

“We are relaxed, we have never doubted the future of nuclear energy,” said EDF boss Xavier Ursat on radio station Europe 1 in November. “We have been saying for years that nuclear energy is absolutely necessary to reduce CO2 emissions in the atmosphere The low CO2 emissions of nuclear power plants are a trump card in the fight against climate change.”

EDF is the world’s largest provider of nuclear power, operates power plants in England, builds in Finland and has submitted bids in Poland, Italy and India. But the company is in crisis. The 56 reactors in France are on average more than 35 years old, and seven reactors alone have been in operation for more than 40 years.

Import requirement due to susceptibility to failure

Age increases susceptibility to failure – with fatal consequences, according to Mycle Schneider, nuclear energy critic and publisher of the “World Nuclear Industry Status Report”. In winter, about a third of the nuclear power plants were not available. On December 22, 2021, France had to import electricity from all surrounding countries. “Up to a total capacity of 13 gigawatts. So actually a catastrophic overall situation,” says Schneider.

More and more EDF reactors in France are down for weeks or months for extensive maintenance. The National Safety Agency for Nuclear Energy ASN recently called for a “Marshall Plan” for France’s reactors. Recently, one of the reactors developed a corrosion problem that could occur in several power plants of the same series and lead to dangerous safety problems.

Prestige project with years of delay

The old reactors are therefore more and more often idle. Power shortages are looming and the latest flagship project – the pressurized water reactor at Flammanville in Normandy – is still off the grid. It was supposed to go into operation in 2012, now – ten years later – EDF had to postpone the start again. Instead of the planned 3.3 billion euros, the power plant is expected to cost 19 billion euros.

What was intended as a demonstration of French competence has become a demonstration of incompetence. Instead of export hits – slow sellers. “It really has become a house of cards,” says Schneider. “There are critical problems from all directions, from all components of this system.”

Group is heavily indebted

Added to this is the disastrous financial situation of the group: EDF has net debts of 42 billion euros plus interest. In view of the high energy costs, the French government is capping the price of electricity in order to protect consumers. But that leaves the group in an even worse position. The rating agency Fitch assumes that the credit default risk is so high that it lowered its rating from A- to BBB+ in mid-January.

France wants to use the green label as a lever

Therefore, the taxonomy proposal of the EU Commission for the Elysée is worth its weight in gold and exactly what the government has been working towards with all its might. The French Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for the Internal Market, also assured last year: “No Green Deal without nuclear”. Breton is close to the nuclear industry and is said to have been traded as a possible EDF boss in 2014.

The green label for nuclear energy as an ecological transitional technology will – so hopes in Paris – attract private investors. And it will open more doors, explains Nicolas Goldberg, energy specialist at Columbus Consulting, based in Paris and Lausanne. “France’s real goal was to use this taxonomy decision as a lever. As a lever for aligning the competition rules in Brussels,” says Goldberg. “Because if private investments in the construction of new nuclear power plants are soon to be given a green label, why shouldn’t the state also be allowed to invest in new construction? It was always about the goal of ultimately aligning the competition rules with the taxonomy rules.”

Reconstruction fund as a possible source of money

Green MEPs even fear that France and other EU member states could also receive direct grants from the EU Corona reconstruction fund for their nuclear energy projects. But from the environment of the French Minister of the Environment, it is said at the request of the ARD-Studios Paris, you have no intention of mobilizing money from the reconstruction fund. Everything is paid for from French sources.

What is remarkable, however, is that the draft taxonomy fits French needs quite precisely. “I have to say that I was extremely surprised not only to find new nuclear power plants in the draft, but also that the taxonomy framework would also allow these old reactors to be retrofitted,” says nuclear energy critic Schneider.

And that is urgently needed. Because new reactors will not be able to supply electricity for ten to 15 years at the earliest. The nuclear power producer EDF therefore hopes to be able to keep the reactors, which are designed to run for 40 years, online for 50 or even 60 years by retrofitting them. The taxonomy framework now allows all necessary work approved by 2040 to be green labeled for private investors. So France and EDF could still get their old nuclear power fleet afloat.

How France’s nuclear power company EDF benefits from the green label from Brussels

Julia Borutta, ARD Paris, 22.1.2022 · 13:07 Uhr

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