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French Welders Can Help Fight Putin’s Gas Crunch

An electricity tower and power cables in a sunflower field in Avoine, France, on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2022. French President Emmanuel Macron backed a EU-wide windfall tax on profits of energy companies, becoming the latest country to support the extraordinary measure to rein in the effects of a deepening crisis.
An electricity tower and power cables in a sunflower field in Avoine, France, on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2022. French President Emmanuel Macron backed a EU-wide windfall tax on profits of energy companies, becoming the latest country to support the extraordinary measure to rein in the effects of a deepening crisis. (Bloomberg)

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

Yet if there’s one modern-day “Rosie the Riveter” who could end up striking a blow against Russian President Vladimir Putin this winter, it’s the industrial welders, pipe fitters and assorted metal bashers tasked with getting a series of France’s aging nuclear power plants back online by 2023.

The job is a high-stakes one: 32 out of 56 reactors are offline, with about a dozen down due to corrosion problems. The outage has an economic cost of 29 billion euros ($29 billion) in lost earnings for soon-to-be-nationalized utility Electricite de France SA. But it has global ramifications too, depriving Europe and France of a fully functioning 61.4-gigawatt capacity of carbon-free electricity, exacerbating the effects of a natural gas crunch and sowing seeds of division among allies.

The repairs are fraught with challenges, with widespread skepticism on whether they will happen quickly or easily given the dearth of workers and materials. On top of the global staffing shortages exposed by Covid-19, welding in a nuclear power plant has its own skills, training and rules to follow due to the radiation risks. And its supply chain – including Italian factories making required piping materials – is under its own pressure from the energy crisis.

Given the urgent need for energy, the temptation might be to relax some of the red tape and maybe even delay certain repairs to get on with pumping electricity, especially if safety risks aren’t all at the same degree.

But even in wartime, these are repairs that shouldn’t be put off. Mark Hibbs, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Nuclear Policy Program, notes that France’s great talent was in producing nuclear plants at scale based on the same design. It’s urgent that doesn’t become a downside if replicated failures cascade across the grid.

There’s also a broader need for the nuclear industry to regain credibility after a string of high-profile cost overruns and delays, including EDF’s next-generation Flamanville plant that’s more than a decade late. The longer plants stay 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 every lever available to get these repairs done and ease Europe’s energy crunch. It has opened a welding school called Hefais, a play on mythical god-of-the-forge Hephaestus, to train more workers. Talent has been brought in from eastern Europe, the Nordics and beyond to join the effort — rather like when this summer’s forest fires saw resources fly in from elsewhere.

One difficulty in training new industrial workers is overcoming the perception that this is unrewarding, difficult and low-value work — a challenge felt by many sectors after Covid-19. One obvious area is pay: Frederic Guimbal, chief executive officer of Groupe Fregate, says that current high demand for welders means the usual salary of roughly 3,000 euros a month may need to increase as a result. Considering the French state wants to pay the next CEO of EDF more than 450,000 euros annually to attract the best talent for a vital yet often thankless job, the same logic should apply.

Once the repairs are over and EDF’s nuclear output is back to an acceptable level, a long-term debate on the role of nuclear will be necessary. If the industry has lost talent over the years, it’s also because of the image over the years of a sector without a future – with the Fukushima accident in 2011 pushing some countries like Germany to exit it altogether. That now looks like a mistake, as even Germany seems to recognize, but we’re still a long way from Charles de Gaulle’s promotion of nuclear as “tomorrow’s” tech.

Although EDF and French President Emmanuel Macron clearly want to seize the opportunity of a new nuclear renaissance to meet climate targets and to secure energy independence, these are multi-decade plans that can run into short-term obstacles. Macron himself, under pressure from the Greens, once promoted nuclear cutbacks and closed France’s oldest plant in 2020. And EDF’s flagship European Pressurized Reactor, originally a symbol of Franco-German expertise, has since become a symbol of French political meddling and infighting among elite engineers.

That will come later. For now, the entire focus should be on firing up reactors. Maybe, in the future, von der Leyen will be talking up nuclear in her speeches – not only as an energy source that helps Europe reach its net-zero goals, but as a geopolitical defense against Putin. And, of course, the value of the welders in wartime.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or 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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