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France's oldest nuclear power plant at Fessenheim finally shuts down

The sun is setting on the Fessenheim nuclear powerplant
The sun is setting on the Fessenheim nuclear powerplant AFP/File

Operators have shut down the remaining reactor at the Fessenheim nuclear plant in eastern France early Tuesday morning after 43 years in operation. Environmental groups have welcomed the closure, which comes with no clear contribution to meeting energy transition goals.

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After coming operational in 1977, the second reactor at the nuclear power plant in Fessenheim along the Rhine near France’s borders with Germany and Switzerland went permanently off the grid as of 11:00 pm (2100 GMT) on Tuesday. 

In a procedure similar to the one that took the first reactor offline in February, reactor number two will start to power down late in the evening and be disconnected from the power grid after its nominal capacity reaches 8 percent, said its operator, state-owned energy firm EDF

It will take several months for both reactors to have cooled enough in order for clean-up teams to start removing highly radioactive spent fuel, in an operation projected to last until 2023. 

“It is the first time a pressurised water nuclear reactor has been stopped and completely dismantled,” an EDF spokesperson told AFP. The plant itself is scheduled to be disassembled between 2025 and 2040.

Closure brings mixed response

Former French President François Hollande made closing the plant part of his successful 2012 campaign, and after many delays, current head of state Emmanuel Macron gave the final green light to the closure in 2018.

Green campaigners who long warned of contamination risks, especially after the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, celebrated the plant’s closure.

Unions representing workers were unhappy with the closure. The plant employed some 750 staff and 300 service providers in late 2017, but only 294 are needed for the fuel removal and then about 60 for the disassembly. 

“Fifteen hours to go. It’s terrible coming to work with knots in your stomach, having to wait until our workplace is sadly euthanised. All employees are in mourning,” tweeted the branch of the CGT trade union representing staff.  

While the government says workers will be transferred to other EDF sites, the town of 2,500 people was concerned about the loss of the plant that drove its economy.

“Clearly, after the shutdown, we’ve got nothing and are far from any project,” said Jean Rottner, president of the regional council in eastern France. Rottner said the closure was a “political decision”. 

Fessenheim Mayor Claude Brender said it was “absurd and incomprehensible” to shut down a plant that was “in good working condition and passes all safety inspections”. 

Uncertain contribution to energy transition

France’s remaining 56 nuclear plants currently provide about 71 percent of its electricity and capacity is expected to be bolstered by a third-generation EPR reactor at a plant in Flamanville in Normandy, currently 10 years behind schedule. 

The French government’s energy transition targets involve reducing the share of atomic power in its electricity mix to 50 percent by 2035 – a target that raises eyebrows.

“We closed Fessenheim, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to close many other nuclear plants,” says Maxence Cordiez, an engineer in the energy industry. 

The 50 percent target is not realistic, he says: "It offers nothing to carbon transition, will cost a lot of money and will reduce the profitability of nuclear power plants.”

One of the criticisms of the closure of the Fessenheim plant is that electricity is likely to be assured by a new greenhouse-gas-emitting coal plant in Germany. 

“In the European network, the electricity production capacities are used by increasing variable prices, so renewable capacities are called first, because they have no variable prices,” Cordiez says. 

That means electricity from non-dispatchable renewable energy sources like wind and solar power is used first, but only when it is available. When it is dark or when the wind is not blowing, demand turns first to nuclear and then to fossil-fuel-produced energy. 

“If you have nuclear capacity available, it will produce before gas or coal power plants,” he says. “If you close Fessenheim, what you don’t produce will be produced by a European gas or coal plant.”

The government said in January it would shut 12 more reactors nearing or passing 40 years of operation by 2035, but on Friday ruled out any further full closures of nuclear power plants.

(with AFP)

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