EDF staff rebel over Hinkley Point nuclear project


On Friday April 22nd the board of directors at French energy giant EDF announced they were delaying a final decision on building two European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) at Hinkley Point in Britain. The news came in the wake of an unprecedented rebellion by EDF staff against the 23-billion-euro project which some fear could even lead to the demise of the state-owned French company. Mediapart has seen a letter backed by 400 managers which calls on EDF's directors to face up to their corporate responsibilities, or face potential legal action if the Hinkley project damages the company. Martine Orange reports.

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If it is not actually a declaration of war, it looks very much like one. Last week a collective letter from 400 managers and senior engineers issued an unprecedented warning to EDF's board of directors about the dangers to the French energy giant in building two European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) at Hinkley Point in south-west England. The existence of the letter was first reported by The Financial Times and now Mediapart can reveal its full contents.

The anonymous letter was sent to directors of the state-owned French company just days before a board meeting on Friday April 22nd at which EDF was due to present plans for the controversial 23 billion-euro project. In the end the board chose to delay the final go-ahead for the scheme for weeks if not months while senior executives consult with the company's internal management-union works council the Comité Central d'Entreprise (CCE). No final decision now seems likely before late June at the earliest and possibly not before September. The further delay was widely taken as a sign that President François Hollande had taken charge of the issue, and seen as a rebuff for economy minister Emmanuel Macron who had said a final decision on the project was “imminent”.

The letter, backed by around 400 managers and senior engineers, delivers a stark warning to the board that is unprecedented in the company's history. It bluntly reminds directors of their legal responsibilities as custodians of the company's interests. “You would be held personally responsible were you to take these decisions without carrying out the double duty of diligence and good faith which is part of your function as a member of the EDF board of directors and to the extent that it was established that these failures had a causal link with the destruction of EDF SA's value,” write the managers. “It is thus an opportune moment to recall the existence and impact of this double duty. French law permits any shareholder to take legal action against the director at fault for reparation for prejudice suffered.”

In short, the directors, whatever their status including that of civil servant, are being threatened with legal action if they are simply happy to go along with what the senior management and the government want them to accept, without greater prior reflection.

  • The letter in full (in French only):

The chairman of EDF, Jean-Bernard Lévy, and the French government had doubtless hoped that after the shock resignation of EDF's group finance director Thomas Piquemal over the project, tensions would recede. They were mistaken. Piquemal's sombre warnings about the mortal danger that EDF was facing by committing itself to a project costing at least 23 billion euros stripped away the customary cloak of silence over such issues. The Hinkley Point project has now become the melting point for a rebellion by a wide cross-section of employees at the group, including both union officials and managers. Staff in all sectors, electricity distribution, the grid, sales, have become increasingly concerned as they discover the scale of the risks that threaten the group, their work and their pay.

Barely a day passes without a new form of opposition springing up against a group chairman who is increasingly under fire. “I've never known such a situation of rebellion in the company, such a rejection of its chairman. Yet we've seen a few crises and conflicts at EDF,” says a former power station boss who worked at the company for more than 40 years.

Last Tuesday, April 19th, it was the turn of the association of employee shareholders at the company to make their voice heard, sending a letter to the stock market regulator the Autorité des Marchés Financiers (AMF) and to the body that handles state holdings in companies, the Agence des Participations de l’État (APE), criticising the state for acting as an abusive dominant shareholder - it owns 85% - liable to ruin the group with its decisions.

The shareholders' association has asked the AMF to consider a proposal for what is known as a public withdrawal bid; a move that would force the French state to buy out all the minority shareholders, including employees. This would cost around nine billion euros. Most of all it would cause further damage to the image of the state as a shareholder at a time when it is planning to open up public companies to outside capital investment.

Then on Thursday the company's internal management-union works council the Comité Central d'Entreprise (CCE) asked for the entire Hinkley Point project to be presented to council members, including unions. The CCE feels that up till now the company management has kept them at arm's length over the plans. Trade unions at the group adopted a resolution allowing the secretary general of the CCE to make a formal legal complaint for “obstruction” if the group chairman refused to give more details about the project.

The resolutions were adopted unanimously, and all the unions have been united in a common front for several weeks now. The CFE-CGC union is on the same wavelength as the traditionally more hard-line CGT and FO unions. Even the CFDT branch at EDF, which has come under huge pressure from its own leadership which wants its members to adopt what it calls a “constructive dialogue”, has joined forces with the other unions.

In additional to these official requests, Mediapart understands that both the EDF management and the government have been warned privately about the potential consequences of their current stance on Hinkley. The message is blunt: the unions believe that proceeding with Hinkley at this time could lead to the group's financial ruin and break-up, and that if EDF and the government do go ahead they could face calls for a strike which would involve power cuts. The last time there was such a strike was 1995.

Despite the mounting criticism, Jean-Bernard Lévy, who is said to believe he has the government's support, remains convinced that he is right. After an earlier letter from around a hundred engineers who asked for the Hinkley project to be postponed – as reported by Mediapart – the chairman organised his own counter-petition in favour of the scheme across the Channel.

“We are convinced that EDF is capable of building and delivering the two reactors at Hinkley Point on schedule. Hinkley Point is politically, economically and industrially one of the most important projects of our time,” write the backers of this letter, which was revealed by The Financial Times. Not everyone was impressed by it. “This petition was written by the PR agency Brunswick in London and sent directly to Jean-Bernard Lévy's director of communications. The order was given to find 100 signatories. They found 103!” is the ironic verdict of someone close to events inside EDF.

Since then pressure has grown on senior executives. The EDF chairman's office has not only required all the top executives to come out in favour of Hinkley Point, but is now also demanding that executives at lower levels also commit to the project. “The more power slips away from him, the more Lévy wants to centralise everything,” says one executive, who wonders just how far things will go.

Yet the more the EDF senior management tries to control events, the more people start talking. A growing number of employees are now determined to ensure that light is shed on the project and to force the government, senior managers and the directors to face up publicly to the risks that many feel have been hidden up to now.

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