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Will France be caught with its plants down?

Published 28 June 2007

If another heat wave hits Europe this summer,
many say country’s beloved nuclear-power system won’t be able to cope.

PARIS — June 22, 2007 — Special to The Globe and Mail

The French have long been proud of the
fact that nearly 80 per cent of their electricity
comes from a sophisticated network of nuclear
power plants. The plants don’t emit greenhouse
gases, and the country doesn’t depend on an
increasingly precarious supply of fossil fuels.

But as Europe prepares for a predicted heat wave
this summer, the French electrical utility is
also preparing for the possibility that its
beloved nuclear power system may not be able to
cope. And environmentalists warn that’s a sign
that nuclear power may not be, as many now argue, a solution to global warming.

"People say that nuclear power is going to solve
global warming, but I think we’re going to have
to solve global warming if we’re going to have a
future for nuclear power," said David Lochbaum,
director for nuclear safety at the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists.
Nuclear power plants rely on large amounts of
cool water to operate at a safe temperature. That
water is then pumped out at a higher temperature,
warming the body of water from which it came.
That doesn’t usually cause any problems if the
plant is located next to an ocean or sea. But if,
the same as three-quarters of French nuclear
generators and many others around the world, the
plant is next to a lake or river, the supply of
cool water can dry up during a hot spell and the
operator faces some hard choices. It can reduce
output or shut down the plant, or it can pump
extra hot water into an already warm lake or
river, and risk raising the water temperature so
much that it causes massive environmental damage.

French reliance on nuclear power makes it a
particularly acute problem here, where power
plants were pushed to their limit during the heat
wave that swept across Europe in 2003.
Environmental rules ban Electricité de France
from discharging water above a certain
temperature, so the utility either reduced output
or shut down 17 of its 58 reactors. The
state-owned EDF, which normally exports power,
was forced to buy energy on the open market at
prices as high as 10 times the average summer price.

Although it has started to rely more heavily on
its seaside plants, the utility was forced to
reduce output again during a hot spell last summer.

Nuclear power facilities in other countries,
including Germany, Spain, the United States and
even Sweden, which uses seawater for cooling,
have experienced similar problems. And while the
interruptions have so far been short-lived, some
environmentalists say they’re concerned nuclear
power plants will become unreliable if, as
predicted, heat waves become more frequent and intense and last longer.

"In 2003 and 2006, it was difficult but it still
worked," said Stéphane Lhomme, a spokesman for
the French lobby group Sortir du Nucléaire (Get
Out of Nuclear). "Maybe in 2010 or 2012, we will
have to shut down 30 reactors. And one day it will all shut down."

Industry representatives say lobbyists such as
Mr. Lhomme are exaggerating the risk. Surmet
Kuran, engineering manager for advanced
technology options at Atomic Energy of Canada
Ltd., said existing reactors in Canada are immune
from problems caused by heat because all of them
are on large bodies of water - either the Great Lakes or the Atlantic Ocean.

He said plants that do have trouble operating in
hot weather can solve the problem by building a
cooling tower, or by changing the reactor design
so that it operates more efficiently and discharges less hot water.

But Mr. Lochbaum said that cooling towers are
only a partial solution, because they still need
to start with cool water, and that plants
equipped with them may still need to shut down.
One such facility is the Browns Ferry Nuclear
Plant in Alabama, where operators predict they
will have to reduce power or shut down for at
least 10 days a year because temperatures are
already far higher than predicted when the plant was built in 1977.

Magnus Mori, a project manager with the World
Nuclear Association in London, said the industry
is just beginning to think about other solutions,
and that new technology to significantly improve
a reactor’s ability to cope with heat is still 15 years away.
With current technology, the most viable solution
may be to limit new reactors to the seashore. But
even that may be impractical, because shipping
the electricity inland is inefficient and
expensive and most people would not tolerate
electricity pylons cutting through the countryside.

In France, EDF says it hopes to have fewer
interruptions this summer. It hopes to cut back
on demand by negotiating contracts to give some
companies better rates if they are willing to
shut down during a heat wave. It is also storing
extra water for cooling, will rely more on its
seaside plants, and has received permission to
raise the water temperature in lakes and rivers
by as much as three degrees C above the normal limit.

It is also investing in wind power and upgrading
fossil fuel plants because they are better at coping with periodic peak demand.

Nuclear top 10

Percentage of electricity supply from nuclear
sources in Europe’s top nuclear-power users:
1. France: 78
2. Lithuania: 72
3. Sweden: 52
4. Ukraine: 51
5. Bulgaria: 42
6. Germany: 32
7. Czech Republic: 31
8. Finland: 27
9. Spain: 23
10. Britain: 20
Source: BBC, 2006

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