French welders can help fight Putin’s gas shortage

The foot soldiers of Europe’s war economy are on the move. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen this week paid tribute to those who are “bravely” coping with the effects of Russian gas cuts, citing Italian industrial workers who are now starting their shifts before the dawn, when energy is cheaper.

Yet if there’s one modern-day ‘Rosie the Riveter’ who could end up dealing a blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin this winter, it’s the industrial welders, pipe fitters and scrap metal workers tasked with salvaging a string of nuclear power plants. aging French women. online by 2023.

The stakes are high: 32 out of 56 reactors are out of service, including around ten due to corrosion problems. The outage has an economic cost of 29 billion euros ($29 billion) in lost revenue for the soon-to-be-nationalized utility Électricité de France SA. But it also has global ramifications, depriving Europe and France of a fully operational capacity of 61.4 gigawatts of carbon-free electricity, exacerbating the effects of a shortage of natural gas and sowing the seeds of division between allies.

Repairs are fraught with challenges, with widespread skepticism about whether they will be done quickly or easily given the shortage of workers and materials. In addition to the global personnel shortages revealed by Covid-19, welding in a nuclear power plant has its own skills, training and rules to follow due to radiological risks. And its supply chain – including Italian factories making the necessary pipe materials – is under its own pressure due to the energy crisis.

Given the urgent need for energy, the temptation could be to ease some red tape and perhaps even delay some repairs to keep pumping electricity, especially if the security risks are not all to the same degree. .

But even in times of war, these are repairs that should not be postponed. Mark Hibbs, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that France’s great talent was to produce large-scale nuclear power plants based on the same design. It is urgent that this does not become an inconvenience if replicated failures impact the network.

There is also a wider need for the nuclear industry to regain credibility after a series of high-profile cost overruns and delays, including EDF’s next-generation Flamanville plant which is over a decade old. delay. The longer factories remain closed, the easier it is for green parties to criticize the sector’s cost and safety record despite its zero-emissions technology.

France should pull all available levers to effect these repairs and alleviate Europe’s energy crisis. He opened a welding school called Hefais, a play on the mythical forge god Hephaestus, to train more workers. Talent has been brought in from Eastern Europe, the Nordics and beyond to join the effort – much like when the wildfires this summer saw resources flow in from elsewhere.

One of the difficulties in training new industrial workers is overcoming the perception that it is thankless, difficult and low-value work – a challenge felt by many sectors after Covid-19. One obvious area is pay: Frédéric Guimbal, managing director of the Fregate Group, says the current high demand for welders means that the usual salary of around 3,000 euros per month may have to increase accordingly. Considering that the French state wants to pay the next EDF CEO more than 450,000 euros a year to attract top talent for vital but often thankless work, the same logic should apply.

Once the repairs have been completed and EDF’s nuclear production has returned to an acceptable level, a long-term reflection on the role of nuclear power will be necessary. If the industry has lost talent over the years, it is also because of the image over the years of a sector with no future – the Fukushima accident in 2011 having pushed certain countries like Germany to get out of it altogether. It now looks like a mistake, as even Germany seems to recognize, but we are still a long way from Charles de Gaulle’s promotion of nuclear as the technology “of tomorrow”.

Although EDF and French President Emmanuel Macron clearly want to seize the opportunity of a new nuclear renaissance to achieve climate goals and ensure energy independence, these are multi-decade plans that may face obstacles to short term. Macron himself, under pressure from the Greens, once encouraged nuclear cuts and closed France’s oldest power plant in 2020. And EDF’s flagship European pressure reactor, originally a symbol of Franco expertise -Germany, has since become a symbol of French political interference and infighting between the elites. engineers.

That will come later. For now, the focus should be on firing the reactors. Perhaps in the future, von der Leyen will talk about nuclear in his speeches – not just as an energy source that helps Europe meet its zero emissions goals, but as a geopolitical defense against Putin. . And, of course, the value of welders in wartime.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering digital currencies, the European Union and France. Previously, he was a reporter for Reuters and Forbes.

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