A drought in Europe this summer could expose the Nuclear Industry to yet more bad publicity following the disaster at Fukushima. The driest spring for a century has hit France particularly hard, leaving French agriculture facing a reduction of 11.5% from their average wheat harvest and could lead to blackouts across mainland Europe.
With water urgently needed by French farmers and river levels rapidly dropping the French nuclear power industry is preparing for a potential worst case scenario. France produces 75% of its electricity from nuclear power and traditionally exports some of this power across Europe. However if river levels drop further then many nuclear plants in France will no longer be able to cool their reactors, forcing them to reduce power output or even to shut down completely. Thomas Hondre, head of nuclear reactors at ASN (the French nuclear watchdog), commented that “we are in a drought situation that could prolong – and in case of a severe drought, if water levels go below set limits, power output has to be cut or completely stopped.” Indeed such situations have already come to pass; in the heat waves of 2003 and 2006.
The problem is further exacerbated by the dramatic change that German energy policy has undergone in recent months. 7 of the country’s nuclear power plants have been shut down this year and are not expected to go back online. Indeed, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced that by 2022 Germany will have shut down all of its nuclear reactors. This shortfall was expected to be bridged in the short term by importation of French nuclear power.
The French energy grid is not just under pressure from possible nuclear shutdown and increased export demands. French hydro-electric plants are also rapidly coming under pressure from reduced water availability. It has been estimated that 2.1 terawatt-hours of hydro-electric power have been lost over the past three months due to increasingly low water levels. 20% of French power capacity is generated through hydro-electricity. French coal power is also under strain as further reductions in river levels could mean that it would become increasingly difficult to transport coal to the plants.
With the threat of blackouts across Europe beginning to become a possibility the Nuclear power industry claims of reliable, dependable, safe power look set to take a further battering. What are your thoughts?