The report that could relaunch France’s nuclear sector

Despite all of the issues, the former CEO is somewhat confident and wants to believe that the French energy sector has learned its lesson after the Flamanville fiasco.

The former CEO of PSA Peugeot Citroën published a report on the third-generation pressurised water reactor design known as EPR, detailing the weaknesses of France’s nuclear sector, while giving the government and EDF reason to justify building nuclear power plants. EURACTIV’s partner La Tribune reports.

Jean-Martin Folz, the former CEO of PSA Peugeot Citroën, submitted his report earlier this week to France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, in which he recommended continued investment in the development of nuclear power plants.

“The relevance of the concept and design” has been demonstrated, explained the former CEO, citing the example of two Chinese reactors in Taishan that have been commissioned in recent months.

In a report that is about 30 pages long, Jean-Martin Folz first denounced initial “unrealistic” estimates, both for the costs and delays of construction. “EDF grossly underestimated (…) the complexity” of the project, he asserted. Initially scheduled for June 2012, commissioning will not take place until the end of 2022.

The estimated bill has already tripled, from €3.3 billion to €12.4 billion, which is also due to an overwhelming series of dysfunctions and slippages. Besides, the report highlighted “inappropriate” project governance and “unsatisfactory relations” between the various companies involved in the construction.

“Generalised loss of skills”

On a more serious note, the difficulties of the site testified to a “generalised loss of skills” in the French nuclear sector, in particular in the case of EDF and Framatome, the former Areva NP which became a subsidiary of EDF in early 2018. The loss has affected design offices, component manufacturers and “the ability to manage a huge site”, according to the report.

The reason for this is the lack of construction of new power plants for almost 20 years. In particular, the report focuses on “the lack of resources and talents in welding technique and performance”. As a result, the latest delay was caused by the discovery of non-compliant welds, which will have to be repaired using remotely operated robots.

Despite all these issues, the former CEO is somewhat confident and wants to believe that the French energy sector has learned its lesson after the Flamanville fiasco.

Such a “dearly acquired experience”, he wrote. “The progress observed in recent years must consolidate and amplify the latest organisational choices made by EDF,” he continued. The rapporteur also welcomed Framatome’s entry into the group, which makes it possible “to rationalise and simplify the organisation of scientific and technical resources in nuclear projects further”.

In his report, Folz also recommended launching “long-term stable programmes for the construction of new reactors” to stimulate a new dynamic by giving companies in the sector “the necessary visibility and confidence to make the necessary investment and recruitment efforts”. He cited the example of China, where “the construction of nuclear power plants has been going on regularly for about twenty years”.

Decision postponed?

But after all these setbacks, the future of EPR in France cannot yet be officially assured. For the nuclear sector, however, time is running out as it needs to prepare for the closure of France’s oldest power plants.

Initially, the government was supposed to decide by mid-2021, only a few months before the presidential elections. But Bruno Le Maire wants to postpone the decision. The decision will not be taken before the Flamanville EPR is commissioned in 2023, and will, in any case, be decided after the French presidential elections set for April 2022.

The issue is politically sensitive, while repeated delays seem to have permanently tarnished the image of these nuclear reactors. Besides, with voters becoming increasingly aware of environmental issues, the issue of nuclear could become of point of contention for many, something which should be confirmed in the next municipal elections.

It also collides with EDF’s reorganisation project, which provides for the company to be split in two: a “blue EDF”, renationalised for nuclear energy in particular, and a “green EDF” for renewable energies.

The issue is socially explosive and has already been mobilising trade unions. EDF’s project to reorganise has already been postponed to 2020, and could even drag on because it is linked to difficult negotiations with the European Commission regarding the increase of the so-called ARENH tariff, the mechanism that allows companies competing with EDF to buy a quarter of its nuclear production at a fixed price.

Preparing the media field

For those criticising nuclear, Jean-Martin Folz’s conclusions would in reality only be a means of preparing the media for the announcement, already made, of the construction of new reactors.

Besides, in his firm speech, in which Bruno Le Maire denounced “an unacceptable lack of rigour” and called on EDF to draw up an “action plan” by the end of November, appears to only be window-dressing.

The critics consider as proof the letter sent in September to Jean-Bernard Levy, the chairman and CEO of EDF group, in which the government asked the CEO to consider building “three pairs of reactors on three separate sites” by 2035. Embarrassed, the Ministry of Ecological Transition then assured that this is only a simple “working hypothesis”, which “does not foreshadow the decisions that could be taken”.

A few days after Le Monde published Levy’s letter in mid-October, the CEO, whose term at the head of the company was extended in May, continued to ‘dig his own grave’. “It is clear that France is preparing to build new nuclear power plants,” he told the evening paper, referring to the six EPRs at the time.

“To reduce costs, it is not enough to make one production unit after another, but a set of reactors. It’s just an industrial reality,” he added.

In response, Elisabeth Borne, the Minister of Ecological Transition, said that “it is not EDF or its CEO that sets the country’s energy policy”.

But those criticising nuclear are still not convinced.

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