Monday, February 24, 2020

Fessenheim 1, RIP:

Another Reactor Closes

The news today comes as no surprise.  Fessenheim 1, France's oldest operating nuclear power plant, was disconnected from the grid this past weekend, completing 42 years of operation.

This action is a consequence of a decision made under the administration of the former French president, Francois Hollande, to limit the nuclear share of the national electricity generation mix to 50% by 2025, and to cap nuclear power generation at the level that existed in 2014.  That decision clearly meant that France would have to shut down older reactors as any new reactors went online.

I want to emphasize that the age of the reactor was not the primary reason for the shutdown.  Yes, it is the oldest reactor, and yes, when the U.S. first licensed reactors, they were only licensed for 40 years.  But the U.S. law has since been changed, and nuclear power plants have demonstrated that, with proper maintenance and upgrades, they can continue operating safely for more than 40 years.

At the time the French law limiting the share of nuclear generation was passed, Electricite de France (EDF) was in the process of building a new nuclear power plant at Flamanville, a 1650 MWe EPR.  The completion of the unit has been delayed a number of times--which also delayed the closure of Fessenheim--but is now nearing completion.  However, somewhat surprisingly, Fessenheim is being closed a couple of years before Flamanville is expected to go into operation.  The grid operator has offered assurances that the gap between the closure of Fessenheim and the opening of Flamanville will not affect the security of France's energy supply.  The grid operator points to the commissioning of a new combined cycle gas plant, the development of renewable energy sources, and new grid interconnections with the U.K. and Italy.

Nevertheless, I think a lot of people would agree that shutting Fessenheim before Flamanville opens is a short-sighted decision.  France is in the process of closing its remaining coal-fired power plants.  Therefore, any further delays in the commissioning of the Flamanville plant, or any other unexpected closures of other plants, could threaten the security of France's energy supply.  

And while past performance may not necessarily provide an accurate prediction of the future, it is no secret that the construction of the Flamanville reactor has experienced numerous delays.  The plant was originally scheduled to go into operation in 2013.  If the current plan to begin operation in 2022 is achieved, that is still a 9-year delay.  

Now that France has made this decision, I of course hope they are able to maintain the current schedule for the start-up of the Flamanville plant, and that nothing happens to threaten France's energy supply.  But, even though I loved living in France, I'm sort of glad I'm not living there now.  Just in case!


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