Nuclear plant on River Rhone, France

View from Brussels: French power games go south

Image credit: Adeliepenguin-Dreamstime

Sky-high power prices caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine are helping to rewrite long-standing energy policies across Europe. For France, it may signal a massive power shift.

Modern France’s ideal energy policy is an export-driven nuclear-fuelled behemoth, under which aspiring atom-smashers pay for French nuclear tech and know-how, while other neighbours and partners just pay for the power that its fleet of reactors generates.

Recent history speaks in favour of such a policy, a major factor of which is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin’s actions have irretrievably cut off his country’s industries from lucrative European markets.

That includes Russia’s state-owned nuclear giant Rosatom, which is one of the French nuclear industry’s main rivals for foreign contracts. By sanctioning itself into oblivion, Russia has scored a damaging own goal.

Central and Eastern European countries that are eager to cut themselves off from Russian energy blackmail have also spoken up in favour of nuclear. Most, like Poland, are yet to take the leap into the sector, while others may seek to double down on more reactors.

If those, some would say optimistic, plans come to fruition then not only will Russian nuclear tech exports take a hit, fossil fuel contracts will also eventually shrivel up completely ahead of even the most bold of predictions.

So far-reaching have the effects of Russia’s ‘special military operation’ been that even Germany has partly admitted that its ongoing nuclear phase-out should be suspended or at least slowed down.

The EU’s recent agreement to label nuclear energy as a green investment as part of a new rulebook – a controversial decision that Emmanuel Macron’s government lobbied heavily in favour of – also paints an ostensibly rosy picture for the energy source.

Carbon-free electricity generation and a steady supply of power on which to base hundreds of gigawatts of new solar and wind energy is a mighty tempting prospect in our current environment. Theoretically, anyway.

But all is not well in the sector. Russia’s war may have prompted a rethink in some quarters but worrying news from Ukraine about Putin’s forces reportedly using the Zaporizhia power plant as target practice have dredged up old fears about nuclear safety.

Heatwaves across Europe have also triggered droughts. That has exacerbated ongoing maintenance woes at France’s 56 nuclear reactors, which have already forced more than half to be taken offline. Reactors need cooling.

That has torpedoed France’s power-export ambitions, transforming the country into a net importer and relegating it from the top spot to behind Sweden, Germany, Spain and Norway. Some of the highest power prices in the region have also been recorded as a result.

Emmanuel Macron has announced price caps and other policies aimed at taking the sting out of what is becoming a full-blown cost of living crisis, hoping that the nuclear fleet will come back online sooner rather than later.

Energy crossroads

France’s previous energy ambitions led its government to drag its feet on a number of important cross-border power projects that could have risked undermining its vested interests.

That included energy interconnectors with the Iberian peninsula, which is isolated from the rest of the EU market. A couple of gas pipelines and electricity cables are all that link the grids of Spain and Portugal with the rest of the continent.

Despite hundreds of millions of euros being earmarked for such ‘projects of common interest’ under a special EU fund, little progress has been made over the years. Even a special summit dedicated to the topic yielded few tangible developments.

Part of the reason for France’s intransigence was its export-driven ambitions. Iberia’s massive potential to generate cheap renewable energy and bring in budget gas from LNG stations and its links with Africa is a threat to those dreams.

France does not want to be a crossroads for electrons generated elsewhere to reach their final destination after all, and transit infrastructure costs money to build and maintain.

But with nuclear showing frailties, Macron struggling with other political headaches and an energy crisis brewing, France may have to change its tune.

Last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that he supported the idea of a pipeline linking Catalonia with southern France, a plan that Portugal and Spain have been working on for a number of years.

The MidCat project was put on stasis due to a weak economic argument in favour of gas and France’s unwillingness to commit to funding the pipeline under terms that both sides found acceptable.

But the world changed and MidCat is back on the table. The French government is yet to react to Scholz’s comments but the chances of the pipeline being fast-tracked are now greatly improved.


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