* France relies on nuclear for three-quarters of its power
* Hit hard by closure of ageing reactors for safety tests
* Power cuts could be imposed during winter cold snaps
* Similar design of reactors creates risk of generic flaws
(Adds detail on French nuclear dependence)
By Bate Felix and Geert De Clercq
PARIS, Nov 8 France could impose power cuts this
winter due to an electricity shortage, an unprecedented step in
the wealthy nation which would expose the vulnerabilities of its
dependence on nuclear power.
The warning was issued on Tuesday by grid operator RTE,
which said power supply had been hit by the closure of around a
third of the country's ageing nuclear reactors for safety
checks. The country's regulator has ordered a review of the
strength of crucial steel components after the discovery of
France relies on nuclear for three-quarters of its power,
more than any other country. RTE said the amount of nuclear
power available was at a record low for this time of year,
around 10,000 megawatts lower than a year ago - equivalent to
more than twice the consumption of Paris and Marseille combined.
"During some periods of the day in winter, and during some
days, we may need to use exceptional measures to guarantee the
balance of electricity demand and supply on the network," RTE
President Francois Brottes told reporters at a news conference.
RTE would start by boosting power imports and could also pay
some industrial customers to switch off their machinery or curb
usage, but Brottes said the gird operator might also have to
impose short, rolling power blackouts in parts of the country.
Power supplies are likely to be most stretched in the first
three weeks of December, RTE said. With about a third of French
homes heated by electricity, the country is highly sensitive to
The discovery last year of weak spots in the steel of the
EPR reactor state-backed utility EDF is building in
Flamanville in northwest France led nuclear regulator ASN to
take a closer look at manufacturing procedures of state-owned
reactor builder Areva.
In May, the ASN said the anomalies found in Flamanville had
also been discovered in reactors being operated by EDF and
ordered safety tests on 18 out of EDF's 58 reactors.
Unlike other nuclear countries such as the United States and
China, which have used different reactor models and suppliers,
all French reactors are pressurised water reactors made by the
same manufacturer, a forerunner of Areva.
This standardisation allowed France to build reactors
relatively quickly and cheaply, but also created the risk that a
generic design flaw or manufacturing problem would affect many
reactors and incapacitate a large part of the fleet. Green
activists have warned of this possible scenario for years.
Traditionally, France is a net exporter of power, but RTE
said it could become a net importer during cold snaps this
winter, bringing in up to 7,000-9,000 megawatts from abroad.
France is well linked to neighbouring countries via
interconnector cables with a capacity of nearly 10 percent of
France's generating capacity.
But Britain has warned that power supply this winter will be
tight, Belgium has had problems with the availability of its own
nuclear reactors, Italy is chronically short of power and links
with Spain have relatively low capacity.
That leaves just Germany and Switzerland as reliable
backups, although Germany's large reliance on intermittent
renewable energy makes it less suitable as a provider of
"The outlook is pessimistic, notably for the first three
weeks of December," said a Paris-based power trader, adding that
power outages could easily happen.
The reactor closures are weighing on the power sales of EDF,
which has cut its nuclear production target three times this
year. They are also forcing the utility to buy expensive power
on the market, further weighing on its profitability.
Ratings agency Moody's said on Tuesday that EDF was unlikely
to benefit from rising power prices offsetting the expected
shortfall in volumes.
Last week, EDF issued its second profit warning of the year,
lowering its 2016 core earnings forecast to 16-16.3 billion
euros from the original 16.3-16.8 billion euros.
The company finally secured approval from the British
government in September to go ahead with its 18 billion pound
($22 billion) project to build two nuclear reactors at Hinkley
Point in England.
EDF has faced internal dissent over the project, with many
critics saying the company's balance sheet is already too
stretched. EDF needs to borrow money just to pay its dividend,
and will have to spend about 50 billion euros ($55.1 billion) on
upgrading its ageing nuclear fleet and several billion more for
its planned takeover of the reactor division of Areva
($1 = 0.8059 pounds; $1 = 0.9074 euros)
(Additional reporting by Geert De Clercq and Sybille de La
Hamaide; Editing by Andrew Callus and Pravin Char)