Jeremy Gordon looks at the closure of Fessenheim, France’s oldest nuclear plant. Does it mark the beginning of the end of nuclear power in the country?

IT CAN TAKE A LOT of willpower to stick to healthy living. It is easy to forget how much you have achieved through investment in exercise and wise choices in diet. It is all too easy for one cheat day to become two and from there to progress into a full-on relapse. In this case it only took until lunchtime nine days later for the healthy low-carbon diet based on nuclear to degrade completely.

First they said, “We’re just going to cut back a bit on nuclear but increasing renewables will balance it out”. Then they admitted, “Actually in the short term we will just grab some gas”. In the end, they didn’t say anything, but they went all the way back to oil — the very fuel that France used to burn for about a quarter of its electricity supply in the 1970s, until price shocks made it swap for nuclear.

Yes, just nine days after the premature closure of 880MWe of nuclear capacity at Fessenheim 1, the French grid recorded 847MWe of oil-fired generation. Oil is one of the dirtiest and most expensive fuels of all for electricity generation, putting out about 800 grammes of CO2 per kWh – something like 100 times more than the nuclear electricity that would have otherwise met demand.

According to scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the University Medical Center Mainz, air pollution from burning oil caused 8.8 million premature deaths in 2015, or to put it another way, reduced life expectancy by an average of 2.9 years. It is pretty clear there was no safety gain from shutting Fessenheim, no matter what its German neighbours might think.

Some people say that because it is the oldest nuclear power reactor in France, it must be dodgy. Of course not; similar units in the US are looking at 60 or even 80 years of operation. Even 100 years is not unheard of. Fessenheim 1 is in the prime of life at 42.

Some people point to economics, and say that EDF’s balance sheet makes it want to invest in profitable (ie subsidised) renewables and get rid of nuclear. Maybe they forget that one of the world’s nuclear operation success stories is Teollisuuden Voima Oyj (TVO) of Finland, which runs its power plants on a non-profit basis under the Mankala model. It maintains its power plants in as-new condition and supplies electricity at cost to its shareholders, who are large industrial consumers and municipal power companies. Fennovoima, in the north of Finland, is also being developed on the same model. This might be a topic for another column — but it’s clearly a huge failure that no other countries have been able to replicate the Mankala model.

Some people say that Fessenheim’s 1 output is not needed. It’s true that the market is oversupplied, and that load following is not the best mode of operation for a nuclear reactor. But are they seriously saying nobody can think of a use for 900MWe with historical availability of 70-90%, which comes complete with a trained workforce, a ready supply of fuel, all the infrastructure it needs and a supportive local population?

Last year EDF launched a hydrogen production and distribution subsidiary, declaring “EDF aims to become a major player in the hydrogen industry.” I don’t really understand why they would do that, if utilising cost-price electricity generation it already owns and operates was not part of the plan.

How about another growth energy market: data centres, which are currently going to great lengths to locate in cold places to reduce the cost of their need for cooling. Just to pick a few numbers: in 2018 Apple’s electricity use was 2.2TWh, Facebook’s was 3.4TWh and Google’s was 10.6TWh. In the same year Fessenheim 1 produced 7.0TWh. It seems like some kind of deal might be possible. I know that it’s an accounting trick when grid power users describe their source as ‘100% renewables’ — but I would be willing to bite my tongue in this case.

And come to think of it, wouldn’t it be easier for Britain to build some more connections to France and arrange for EDF to transfer ownership of its ‘unwanted’ nuclear power plants to EDF Energy? Might that be easier than spending tens of billions of pounds to build a fleet of EPRs at Hinkley Point, Sizewell and so on? Wouldn’t they all be owned and operated by the same company on the same European grid?

No, Fessenheim’s closure really has nothing to do with safety, nothing to do with economics and nothing to do with the utility of the product.

The first and most fundamental reason for this closure is that nuclear has enemies ready to capitalise on its problems. FranÇois Hollande’s Socialist Party needed the support of the Green Party for his election during 2011 — shortly after the accident at Fukushima Daiichi and while the national industry’s failures at Olkiluoto and Flamanville were biting hard and when Germany’s Energiewende policy still had a shred of dignity. As ‘the oldest’ reactor, and just over the Rhine river from Germany, Fessenheim presents a very easy target.

That nuclear had enemies ready to capitalise on opportunities like Hollande’s need for a bargain is no surprise. What is sadder is the second reason for the closure: that nuclear had no friends with any political capital that would make Hollande think twice about it. Industry needs to ask itself why.

The third reason for the closure is that the industry doesn’t apparently have any capacity to fight for itself. After its initial shock at Hollande’s policy announcement, French industry soon reverted to complacency and apathy. Despite holding a world-leading asset, with no real problems that could not be overcome by the application of a little determination and imagination, French executives tried only to delay the process, hoping things would change on their own. They thought that the mathematics of power generation and the superior utility of nuclear were irrefutable, so everything will be okay.

They said, “We may lose Fessenheim, but Flamanville 3 will be online by then so it will be okay.” Wrong.

They said, “We may be limited to a 50% share, but demand is going to grow fast enough, so it will be okay.” Wrong.

They said, “The government will change before then, so it will be okay.” Wrong. And extra-wrong, because President Emmanuel Macron is going ahead with the policy although he has several times spoken in a way that proves he understands the advantage that nuclear power has given France in terms of reliability, industry, skills, technology, low prices and low CO2 emissions.

They said, “Fessenheim will close, but it will be the only one, so it will be okay.” Wrong. In January, Blayais, Bugey, Chinon, Cruas, Dampierre, Gravelines, and Tricastin were all announced as being in the firing line for the next wave of completely pointless vandalism.

French industry players were always powerless to do anything except what they have been told by their government. This deadly weakness easily balances out the advantages of central planning and access to better finance and is the fourth reason for the shutdown. We see the same fatal flaw devastating the South Korean industry.

Instead of finding solutions, it seems EDF’s strategy has been to secure itself the best possible compensation package, leaving any pushback to civil society and representatives of its workers, like the French Nuclear Society (SFEN) and self-funded advocacy groups like Voices of Nuclear.

Worse than all that is what seems to be a fifth and final reason for the shutdown. Over eight years the French industry did not manage to propose an alternative scenario that would interest either the Hollande or Macron governments and enable them to change course. I find it hard to comprehend that the only commercial industry that routinely splits the atom cannot think of a single business partner or direct use for the electricity it produces. But apparently this is the case.

About the author: Jeremy Gordon is an independent communication consultant with 15 years of experience in the international energy industry. His company Fluent in Energy supports partners of all kinds to communicate matters of clean energy and sustainable development.

Cartoon by Alexey Koveynev: "I think that the opinion of our neighbours is more important than the economy and safety"