RESEARCH (1/3). EDF, the roots of a crack: “A normal company would go bankrupt”

We should be the oil kings. As all of Europe prepares for a harsh winter, lighting candles in the hope of escaping polar temperatures and power cuts, France, its national electrician and its 56 nuclear reactors had all the cards in hand to get through the period without incident. . An electric oasis in the heart of the storm. This could have been our country. In this parallel world, forever reconciled with the atom, EDF would have run its power plants at full capacity, sold its abundant production to our neighbors at incomprehensible prices – up to ten times more expensive than the year that passed at the same time – and reaped super profits. which might have earned him a tax, but which would have been particularly useful in financing the colossal investments before him.

Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. At the precise moment when it could have demonstrated the relevance of the nuclear choice, making the most of its industrial tool, the old monopoly seems to be crumbling on all sides. Over-indebted, paralyzed by corrosion problems that forced it to stop a dozen of its reactors, bogged down in long maintenance work, suffocated by the tariff framework and constantly torn apart by the contradictory mandates of the shareholder State. Without means, without leverage and without vision, “the French’s favorite company” is but a shadow of its former self.

Whose fault is it? To its successive leaders, whom no strategic or managerial error has ever led to question. To public decision makers, unable to draw the general lines of a coherent energy policy. Twenty years of floundering deregulation, of which EDF has often perceived the downsides, but more rarely the upsides. Finally, to the social and cultural heaviness that corsetes a house that continues to live at all levels in the illusion of its past greatness. We measure quite well the task that awaits the future boss of the tricolor electrician. He is titanic and, to be honest, almost existential, in light of the current debacle. This “1940 energy”, as he calls it a local figure. Will we be able to learn the lessons of this strange defeat?

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Chapter 1: How did we get here?

Landing is expected in a few weeks. And this perspective is obviously enough to lighten the mood. Before the end of the fall, EDF will receive reinforcements from dozens of American workers who are supposed to solve some of its problems. This team, in terms of welding, is a bit like the “New York Philharmonic Orchestra”, turns on the Ministry of Energy Transition. To pay for the services of these virtuosos, the executive and the tricolor company had to negotiate harshly with Westinghouse, his employer. And pay a high price for his arrival, of course… But did they have another option? As the cold season approaches, EDF embarks on a race against time. The group has pledged to restart half of its nuclear reactors, which are currently shut down, as soon as possible, and all means are good to speed up the schedule, to avoid the disaster scenario of a general power outage.

This call for help says a lot about the fever that reigns in the first European electrician. In any case, it illustrates the dire difficulties facing EDF at the end of “horrible year“. In December, the production of the nuclear park will reach a maximum of 300 terawatt hours, its lowest level since 1990. A volume far from guaranteed: it presupposes a massive and rapid commissioning of many reactors, which many specialists make unlikely. This drop in production is a real problem for our electricity supply, but it also has devastating financial implications for a company. at the same time obliged to apply the tariff shield, and forced to resell some of its electrons to its competitors at reduced prices, in order to limit the increase in bills. The effect of this explosive cocktail is already known: this year it will cut its operating income by 29,000 million euros. A colossal load, which astonishes the world of energy. “A normal box would go bankrupt,” says a head of the sector. The French electrician will be renationalized, which is not strictly speaking a guarantee of a start… How did we come to this?

Heard a few days ago by parliamentarians, the outgoing director general of EDF, Jean-Bernard Lévy, tried to justify this infernal spiral: the hard work carried out on certain reactors in the park to extend their useful life to forty years; the Covid, which completely disrupted the maintenance schedule and delayed the work needed to bring some reactors back into service, and of course the huge tile, this corrosion phenomenon discovered in the secondary circuits of a handful of reactors, which led to the arrest of a dozen of them. A combination of unforeseen events, an ugly combination of circumstances, in a way…

Availability collapse

But in the group environment, even internally, we buy less and less the thesis of bad luck. “To me, the collapse in production is as worrying an industrial failure as the Flamanville EPR,” says a former in-house executive. And that doesn’t date from yesterday: “The availability of nuclear energy is a problem that has been under the rug for fifteen years,” the executive of an EDF subsidiary who farts in the face one day gets angry. It is enough to review the group’s reports to verify it: between 2006 and 2019 -long before Covid and the corrosion problem, therefore-, the availability of the French fleet with respect to its maximum theoretical power had already plummeted, going from 83, 6%. at 74%.

An intrinsic, persistent fragility, considered sufficiently worrying by the public authorities so that the improvement of this ratio is at the forefront of the missions of the head of EDF. Until Henri Proglio, their variable compensation even depended in part on the volume of electrons produced each year. Appointed in 2009, Jean-Bernard Lévy’s predecessor had made it one of his workhorses, promising a return to abundance in 2011, then in 2015, with the “Generation 420” plan (for 420 terawatt hours), intended to return to the levels reached. in 2006. Nothing will happen. And since then things have only gotten worse…

stop that stretch

Thus, in the last five years, non-ten-yearly stops (routine, to refuel or corresponding to periodic reviews) have been distributed over an average duration of ninety-four days. Three times more than the stops made by US operators, and almost forty days more than in the mid-2000s. Here again, however, the pandemic does not explain everything. “The management has not taken the measure of the problem, accuses the former director of EDF. There is an issue of organization, human resources, concern for spare parts, the quality of service providers.” “With the most standardized fleet in the world, they should be the kings of maintenance, says an expert in the sector.

Half of the nuclear fleet went out, collapsing availability

Half of the nuclear fleet went out, collapsing availability

L’Express / EDF Nuclear Monitor

The reality is that, even without taking into account the inherently unpredictable failures, EDF does not respect its own schedules.” Without the schedule delay eliciting many reactions at the highest level of the hierarchy. “There is a habituation to failure,” he summarizes a familiar with the company A form of resignation, too, in the face of certain aberrations of the system: “Have you ever visited a power plant? Asks an EDF executive. Workers spend almost a quarter of their time at work entering and leaving the site. It’s completely absurd.” One example among many of the possible improvements to boost operational performance. Commissioned by the former Minister of Ecology Barbara Pompili in 2021, experts from the Egis firm have just presented a report pointing out the multiple causes of inefficiency in the operation of power plants, and suggesting the establishment of a “national productivity plan” to optimize the maintenance and shutdowns of the nuclear park.

Jean-Bernard Lévy stands firm in his boots. As he had done at the end of August at the Medef Meetings, the future ex-CEO of EDF once again denounced before the Economic Affairs Commission of the National Assembly the inconsistencies of the state shareholder, the main responsible according to him for the current difficulties. In his sights: the 180-degree turn of the Government, which now advocates the reactivation of nuclear energy after having scheduled the closure of 14 reactors, and, in general, the limited economic room for maneuver that is granted to the enterprise. “If the sector had been able to launch projects earlier, we could have recruited more employees, whom we could have mobilized and transferred to emergencies to be attended to in the current fleet”, justifies the head of EDF, without questioning a second. about possible internal faults.

This latest departure did nothing, one suspects, to restore his image within the executive. “It is not because the State decides to build a train line that arrives at the station on time”, we answered at the Ministry of Energy Transition. But all that will soon be history. In a few days, Jean-Bernard Lévy will give up his office on the avenue de Wagram to a new boss, who will have to investigate very quickly and without blinkers the causes of this industrial collapse. On top of the huge pile of files waiting for him at EDF, his successor knows that another emergency is coming: the construction of new nuclear power plants. For that reason alone, very few, in the world of small Parisian business, would want to be in his place…


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Find the second episode of our investigation at EDF on Tuesday, September 27 on lexpress.fr


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