France is preparing for an unusual scenario, inappropriate for the sixth largest economy in the world and for a country that until very recently prided itself on the energy sovereignty provided by its powerful nuclear sector. The Government has designed plans to carry out eventual temporary and rotating power cuts at peak hours, next January, if circumstances require it.
The French difficulties have hardly anything to do with the war in the Ukraine, which makes the situation even more serious. The current shortage is due to a lack of foresight and the aging of its nuclear reactors. Many of them have corrosion problems and cracks in their structures. Work to repair them has been delayed, in part by a recent strike by technicians. Yesterday, Saturday, there were 19 reactors stopped out of a total of 56.
As reported to the prefects of the departments, blackouts may occur on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m., and between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. In principle, they should be limited to two hours. Any part of the metropolitan territory can suffer them, but there will not be two cutting phases in an area on the same day. The island of Corsica, which has an independent supply, will be spared. Next Friday, December 9, a simulation will be carried out to technically adjust all the procedures.
Macron wanted to reassure the public yesterday. In an interview with the TF1 channel, the President of the Republic said that there is no reason for panic and that, if there is sufficient savings in consumption, the cuts can be avoided.
Vital facilities such as hospitals, fire stations, police and others will have guaranteed supply. The population will be alerted three days before about the possibility of the cut in their area through the EcoWatt application, mobile messages and the media. Twenty-four hours before there will be a confirmation and more specific data.
While the blackout lasts, it is very likely that neither the landline nor the mobile phone nor the Internet will work, despite the fact that mobile phones and computers have charged batteries. The reason is that the antennas that distribute the signal are fed with electricity and are not considered vital facilities, so they can fail. The schools where the cut is scheduled will be closed, for security reasons.
The mere announcement of the measures, disclosed in great detail by the press, has already created anxiety among citizens. There is concern about elevators, automatic doors, ATMs and other elements of daily life that are taken for granted and that without electricity will remain inoperative. It is not even guaranteed to be able to call the emergency telephone numbers. 112 is the most reliable, but it is believed that there will be areas without coverage.
There is special concern for patients hospitalized in their own homes – some 5,000 in all of France – many of whom depend on devices such as respirators. They are thinking of taking them temporarily to the hospital in some cases, or providing them with batteries or generators, but they will have to be tested beforehand. Regarding stores and supermarkets, the maximum cut of two hours should not affect the cold chain of frozen products. Some bars and restaurants may decide to close the day of the power outage.
The prospect of cuts damages French self-esteem. "France, on the ground," headlined its editorial in the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, which described as "outrageous" a situation "that says a lot about the state of our country." Others speak of “energy lockdown” and even “energy 1940s,” drawing parallels with the German invasion in World War II, the darkest moment in French history.
It is indeed a paradox that France finds itself thus coinciding with the crisis resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It could have been an energetic oasis thanks to its nuclear park, but it is not. It is importing electricity more than ever and will continue to do so in the coming months. The president of the company RTE, which is in charge of transporting electricity, Xavier Piechaczyk, confirmed that France is buying electricity from Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom and the Benelux. However, the import capacity is only 15 gigawatts against an expected peak consumption of 90 gigawatts in the coldest months.
The miseries of today are explained by the lack of investment and bad business management –of the giant Électricité de France (EDF), now completely nationalized– and of successive governments of different colors. The objective until a few years ago was to reduce nuclear dependency, but now it has been reversed. Renovating the plant park with modern and efficient reactors will take many years. It is an industrial challenge, not just an economic one. Thousands of engineers and technicians are missing because for a long time the sector stopped being attractive. It suffered from the stigma of dangerous and unethical technology. Covering this personnel deficit is not improvised.