Nuclear energy company executives worldwide can be forgiven for wondering if Mother Nature is pursuing a vendetta against them.
The 11 March 9.0 Richter scale earthquake that rattled Japan saw its shoreline structures survive, but the 50-foot waves generated by tsunami that followed less than an hour later destroyed many Japanese coastal installations and knocked out power to Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) six nuclear reactor complex at Fukushima, instigating a crisis that has yet to be resolved.
Now, half a world away, a shortage of water is threatening France’s nuclear reactor complex, as the region’s worst drought in more than a half-century drains rivers and free-flowing water to cooling reactors.
Most French rivers have seen a significant drop in their water levels because the drought has affected half of the country's counties, which farming unions maintain is the worst in 35 years.
Since Fuskushima erupted, both Germany and Switzerland have decided to phase out their nuclear power infrastructure, while an Italian plebiscite on 12 – 13 June overwhelmingly rejected Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s intention to restart the country’s dormant nuclear program.
France currently operates 59 nuclear reactors, which provide 78.8 percent of the country’s electricity, the highest percentage in the world. The water shortage issue is hardly insignificant, as 44 of France's 59 reactors are situated by rivers. with the remainder located on the coast.
Given its commitment, France is the world's largest net exporter of electric power, providing 18 percent of its total electrical power generation to neighboring, Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, as its nuclear base allows it electrical generating costs among the lowest in Europe.
In the wake of Fukushima, on 23 March French Prime Minister Francois Fillon directed France’s Autorité de sûreté nucléaire to conduct an “open and transparent” audit all 59 French civilian nuclear reactors for possible of flood and earthquake damage as well as unexpected power and coolant outages as well as site accident management processes, with initial reported to be delivered by the end of the year.
Given the drought conditions, the French government has established a committee to monitor the country's electricity supply situation and its river flows, as 44 of the country’s nuclear reactors are cooled by river water.
In the longer term, Germany’s abandonment of nuclear energy and the imminent closure of seven German nuclear reactors could squeeze France’s power supply, according to French Industry Minister Eric Besson, who told France Info radio, “I’m not being alarmist but we need to be vigilant. In the short term the immediate halt of seven reactors will remove about 10 percent of Germany’s power generation. This means Germany will be able to export a lot less.” Ironically, according to Besson, French power exports to Germany have already increased by 50 percent recently because German reactors have been taken offline.
Confident that the country will surmount current conditions, Électricité de France SA, the country's only nuclear power generator, is pressing forward with a new atomic plant at Flamanville in Normandy and has plans for another in northern France at Penly.
Électricité de France SA is whistling in the dark, as demand for power rises in summer when homes and businesses switch on cooling systems, possibly leading to a situation where supply may not meet demand. L'Observatoire nucléaire a NGO that monitors France's nuclear programs warned, "If they (reactor water sources) were to dry up, there exists a real risk of fusion of the cores and thus an accident comparable to the one currently under way in Fukushima."
But, according to Paris and Électricité de France SA, nothing to see here, move along.
By. John Daly for OilPrice.com