The French pride themselves on being a rational people, with reason: didn’t they give the world a metric system which combines sizes, distances, volumes and weights in a neat logical framework?
A signatory to the Paris Agreement of 2015, France is committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, with a 40 percent reduction in fossil fuel use by 2030. Electricity generation in France is among the cleanest in the world, with nuclear power accounting for 72% of its electric production in 2018. France is committed to phasing out its coal powered electric production in 2022.
But France has now reactivated all of its coal-fired electric plants. All four plants were active during 20 days in September 2020 (as opposed to 2 days in 2019) and 10 days so far in October.
Why this revival of coal?
EDF, the mainly state-owned electricity provider, explains: 22 of France’s nuclear reactors (out of 56) are presently closed for maintenance, and a lack of wind in Europe has idled the wind turbines.
But there is another reason which EDF does not mention. The two units of the Fessenheim nuclear plant in eastern France were permanently shut down in February and June of 2020 respectively. Each produced 880 Mega Watts of electricity.
The French Nuclear Energy Society (SFEN) objected that "the closure of the Fessenheim plant appears to be a decision with terrible consequences for industrial employment, the struggle against global warming, and the resilience of our electrical system."
Coal-fired power plants have serious health consequences. One MW produced emits one ton of CO2 into the atmosphere, as well as pollutants which include mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates which contribute to respiratory illnesses.
Why were the Fessenheim plants shut down?
Barbara Pompili, the French Minister of Ecology, justifies the decision:
“The Fessenheim reactors are 42 years old. Nuclear reactors were originally planned for 40 years. To go beyond 40 years, the reactors must meet the requirements of the 4th 10-yearly inspection, the VD4. Anticipating its closure, EDF did not carry out the work at Fessenheim to meet these requirements. In its current state, it is therefore not possible for it to continue to operate…”
But Jean-Luc Salanave, a renowned energy expert and academic, disagrees:
No, age is not the relevant criterion for reactor shutdown: it is safety or economic obsolescence (at 23€ per MWh, Fessenheim's electricity would have remained unbeatable for a long time, even for the best solar technology bought in China, and even without the exorbitant storage or intermittent costs still unknown).
No, 40 years is not a mandatory limit since reactors of the Fessenheim type are licensed for 80 years in the USA.
Yes, Fessenheim has begun its fourth ten-year inspection and would have been authorized by the ASN (French national safety authority) to extend its operation for 10 years.
Pierre-Franck Chevet, head of the ASN, declared to the newspaper Le Figaro on October 26, 2018 that he considered Fessenheim to be one of the "safest power plants in France".
When François Hollande ran for President in 2012, he promised to reduce France’s nuclear electric capacity from 75% down to 50%, in order to attract anti-nuclear “ecological” voters. He won the presidency but at a high price for electricity consumers and the climate. Subsequent governments did not reverse this unfortunate and irrational decision.