Cracking under pressure: Inside the race to fix France's nuclear plants
Published in News & Features
PARIS — Behind layers of security and a thick concrete wall, a team of welders work in shifts to fix the crippled Penly nuclear plant in northern France. Sweating under protective gear, they’re replacing cracked pipes in the emergency cooling system which protects against a reactor meltdown.
Each weld takes at least three days to complete, with workers often on their knees or backs to reach for the correct angle. Even in radiation suits, health regulations limit work in that environment to a maximum 40 hours a year.
The complicated procedures, replicated across sites this winter, have hampered the ability of Electricite de France SA to get its reactors back online after lengthy shutdowns.
Deadlines have slipped. The two Penly reactors were scheduled to be back online this month and next. Instead, EDF has been forced to delay the restarts to May and June.
“These are complex situations, in a noisy and radioactive environment,” Laurent Marquis, a manager at Altrad Group-Endel which is coordinating the repairs for EDF at Penly, said last month, before the restarts were pushed back. “Workers can sometimes only hold their position for just a few minutes before they need to be replaced.”
The power station, below a cliff on France’s northern coast, normally provides electricity for about 3.6 million households. Its two reactors have been, in effect, grounded by faulty plumbing — the same cracked pipes first discovered by EDF at another plant in late 2021. That reactor, at Civaux in central France, only came back online on Wednesday after extensive repairs.
The discoveries plunged the operator into a crisis with repercussions for all of Europe. EDF called it an “annus horribilis,” and from early May to late October, about half of its 56 reactors sat idle due to the repair and maintenance backlog.
It flipped France from Europe’s biggest electricity exporter into a net importer last year, just as the continent needed it more than ever. After gas imports from Russia dried up, energy prices soared, governments spent billions helping consumers with their bills and Europe was threatened with shortages and blackouts.
So far, Europe has avoided the worst-case scenario, thanks to efforts to conserve energy and a relatively mild winter that reduced heating demand.
But the crisis is far from over, and EDF needs to find a way to avoid a repeat next winter. That challenge — finding problems, fixing them, doing checks — is already a mammoth task, and it’s being compounded by financial issues and staff shortages.
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