Macron should go for nuclear option

So daunting is the challenge of overhauling the global energy system to prevent further catastrophic climate change, that just thinking about it feels paralysing. It’s been done before though, at least on a national level.
During the 1970s and 1980s France built scores of nuclear power plants that now provide almost three-quarters of the country’s electricity. At the time, French scientists were motivated by soaring oil prices, not soaring temperatures. But from a climate perspective the country made a good choice.
Today, EDF has the largest fleet of nuclear plants in the world, including 58 in France. Thanks also to its footprint in hydro-power, more than four-fifths of the power France produces is carbon-free. While the government still owns 84 percent of the share capital, EDF is something of a rarity: A publicly traded, climate change-curbing machine.
To ensure it remains so, EDF needs to change. The French finance ministry has hired JPMorgan Chase & Co. to advise on a possible split of EDF’s nuclear and non-nuclear assets, Challenges magazine reported last week. Happily, such an overhaul might benefit long-suffering equity investors as well as the environment.
EDF’s nuclear fleet is getting old, obliging France to decide how it’s going to power the country for the next 50 years and beyond. Emmanuel Macron’s government is due to publish an energy road map in the coming weeks. A key aim is to cut the country’s dependency on nuclear generation to 50 percent of power provision, shut coal fire power plants and boost renewables. EDF wants to spearhead that change but it’s not clear how quickly it will have to shut its existing nuclear plants, not what this means for its hopes of building new reactors based on its “European Pressurised Reactor” design, which has been beset by delays and cost overruns.
The company has been boosted by the resignation of environment minister Nicolas Hulot, an opponent of the nuclear industry. Meanwhile, soaring power and carbon prices have made investors more confident about EDF’s profit potential. Since a nadir in 2017 when it raised 4 billion euros of fresh capital, the share price has doubled.
That doesn’t mean EDF’s in the clear, though. The stock remains 80 percent below its 2007 peak and the company is burdened by colossal debts, pension obligations and liabilities associated with decommissioning nuclear plants and dealing with atomic waste. Adjusted for those liabilities and offsetting financial assets, EDF’s economic net debt was about 73 billion euros at end of
December, estimates Jefferies.
It’s far from certain that EDF can bear these liabilities while funding a projected 15 billion euros of yearly capital expenditure. EDF’s commitments include: 45 billion euros of investments until 2025 to upgrade the existing nuclear fleet; a two-thirds share of the 19.6 billion pound nuclear power plant at Britain’s Hinkley Point; and the addition of 30GW of solar capacity by 2035.
The state’s wariness about having to reach into its pocket again probably explains why ministers are reportedly mulling those structural changes. One scenario is a carve-out of EDF’s nuclear generation assets from the distribution and renewables business.

Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.

Leave a Reply

Send this to a friend