Battered Wife Syndrome Behind Nuclear Failure
French President Emmanuel Macron was wrong to declare "the end of abundance" just because Europe made a mess of energy policy
Last year, I praised French President Emmanuel Macron for offering an inspiring vision of nuclear energy’s future, complete with a stunning, must-watch video, called “The Dream is Possible,” of nuclear’s high-tech past and future.
Since then, France’s nuclear power plants have stumbled badly. France had, for many years, been the backbone of Europe, providing about 15% of the continent’s total electricity supply. But in 2022, for the first time ever, France became a net importer of electricity, especially coal power from Germany, because its nuclear power plants are producing at a 30-year low.
The main cause is overdue repairs brought on by the neglect and lack of appreciation of nuclear power. Over half of France's 56 nuclear reactors are offline for maintenance and inspections. Twelve of those reactors have corrosion issues. They can all be fixed, and perhaps as early as December, but it may take longer. The outages couldn’t have occurred at worse time given the loss of most Russian natural gas supplies in retaliation for Europe’s support for Ukraine in its war against Russia.
In response, Macron last month said that the energy crisis signaled “the end of abundance.” When Gabriel Bouchard, an editor with Le Point, an influential French magazine read by Macron, asked me what I thought, I didn’t hold back. “Give me back the Macron of 2021!”
We conducted the interview in English, Le Point translated it into French, and I used Google to translate it back into English. The result is that I sound, well, French.
Here’s Bouchaud’s introduction:
“The end of abundance and carelessness” — this is the terrible prediction of the President of the French Republic. Why? Because the European Union has become dangerously dependent on Russian gas. However, the latter has decided to wage a war of conquest in Ukraine that it is unthinkable to support, even indirectly, by continuing to buy energy from Vladimir Putin. The problem with Emmanuel Macron's declaration is that energy abundance in Europe only depends on Vladimir Putin because we wanted it to, explains Michael Shellenberger, American essayist and defender of nuclear power, which he says would allow France to emerge from the climate challenge on top. According to Shellenberger, Europe’s energy crisis is due above all to the failure of Western leaders. Explosive interview.”
Le Point: Do you think, like Emmanuel Macron, that we are coming to the end of abundance in Europe?
Michael Shellenberger: Of course not, that's nonsense. That Emmanuel Macron and EDF failed to properly maintain the jewels of Europe's energy system, namely France's nuclear power plants, would mean that Europeans must become poor? This is factually false.
The problem is of technical origin: the pipe welds had not been properly inspected and maintained. These are machines! It's not sorcery and it's nowhere near as difficult as launching a telescope into space, doing nuclear fusion, or sending a robot to Mars. We are talking about pipes welded together. Obviously, this work must be done well. It must be regularly inspected. But they are machines, nothing more nor less.
I am disappointed with Emmanuel Macron. A year ago, he produced a superb video concerning his France 2030 plan, recalling the technological prowess of which France was capable. What happened to him? Who is this impostor, so easily defeated by a question of maintenance of the nuclear fleet? Give me back the Macron of 2021!
However, the geopolitical and energy crisis we are experiencing is very real.
Yes, but it should have been the moment of glory for the French nuclear industry. And the opposite happened; it breaks my heart. The failure of the French nuclear plants at a time when Europe needs them most is a direct consequence of France’s neglect and disdain for nuclear power, coupled with a deleterious passion for renewables.
EDF [the French state-owned electric utility] invested billions of euros in wind power, which has led to increased natural gas consumption. Nuclear has been demonetized; wind power and photovoltaics have been extolled. We see the consequences now. Heads of state, Emmanuel Macron included, must prepare their populations for a harsh winter.
Part of the blame also lies with Joe Biden and Justin Trudeau, who refuse to produce enough natural gas to compensate for the Russian embargo. Increasing production would only take a year. Despite the availability of these gas reserves, and the simple need to maintain nuclear power plants, Emmanuel Macron adopts a Malthusian worldview.
How is this Malthusian?
How could there be an end to abundance, if not by our own making?