Ironically, in Europe's biggest energy crisis for decades, France's nuclear power plant park is running on the back burner.

Of the 56 reactors in the country, less than half are currently producing electricity at full capacity.

The supply could only be maintained in the past few weeks thanks to massive imports from Germany, Belgium, Spain and Great Britain.

For comparison: In early summer 2021, France exported more electricity to all four countries than it imported from there.

The malaise began last autumn when the operator Électricité de France (EDF) discovered pipe cracks in the safety injection system during a ten-year inspection of a nuclear power plant.

What initially caused little excitement grew at the turn of the year after cracks or indications of them were discovered in other systems, and turned into a real problem.

In the meantime, due to the corrosion phenomenon alone, twelve reactors are not connected to the grid for the time being, including the four most modern and powerful ones.

At the end of July, the French nuclear supervisory authority released some pressure from the cauldron: It nodded to the repair schedule proposed by EDF, and at the same time it called the oldest, with 32 plants the most widespread reactor type, "little or very little susceptible" to the corrosion phenomenon.

The power plant fleet probably does not need to be subjected to an acute general overhaul.

Nevertheless, the supply situation is already tense as the corona pandemic has delayed routine maintenance work.

Because they are now being caught up little by little, several reactors temporarily do not produce electricity even without any cracks in the pipes.

The bottom line is that the generation of the power plant park will fall to a 30-year low this year, estimates EDF.

Extreme scenarios are booming

Unprecedented weather extremes exacerbate the situation.

For weeks, one heat wave after the next has rolled over France, coupled with too little rain.

This is another stress test for the nuclear power plants: to protect plants and animals, they are no longer allowed to use their water for cooling when the river temperature is too high and discharge it again warmer.

As in similar situations in the past, nature has to believe in it again: The nuclear supervisory authority extended special permits so that five nuclear power plants can remain connected to the grid at least with minimum output even at high river temperatures - and the reserves of the natural gas and hydroelectric power plants "with regard to the coming autumn and winter”.

In fact, the actual stress test is yet to come.

Many more French than Germans heat with electricity instead of oil and gas, and the country has repeatedly had to rely on supplies from abroad in recent winters.

But the concern is that this time there will not be enough electricity.

For weeks now, extreme scenarios have been booming on the electricity futures market, with domestic demand not being able to be covered by sufficient supply in the coming winter.

Wholesale prices for cold-season deliveries are skyrocketing so much that the French grid agency emphasized that even the most pessimistic scenarios regarding the availability of the power plant park and a cold winter do not justify such electricity prices.

Nevertheless, she also diagnosed a "historical distance to German prices".

In view of the power plant failures, Paris is counting on Berlin more than ever.

"French vulnerability is the electricity that we have to import," stressed Energy Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher after she and her German counterpart Robert Habeck had promised mutual solidarity in Brussels at the end of July.

That won't be easy at all, because even in the Federal Republic of Germany, electricity could become scarce in winter if many people start heating with it.

Germany would therefore do well not to stop at declarations of support.

That includes not pulling the plug in the middle of an energy crisis and three powerful nuclear power plants in the winter.

Even if the French government has so far held back in public, there is a great deal of incomprehension that the other side of the Rhine has not yet exhausted all means of generating electricity.

As has been declared, Franco-German solidarity should not be a one-way street: In return, energy minister Pannier-Runacher said that gas was delivered to the neighbor because that, in turn, was “German vulnerability”.