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Latest hot spell set to deepen drought pain in France
* Prolonged drought hits France
* Groundwater at very low levels due to lack of rainfall
* Low river level could curb nuclear power generation
* Maize crop to suffer due to water restrictions
By Bate Felix and Sybille de La Hamaide
PARIS, July 17 (Reuters) - Hot weather in France next week is expected to prolong drought conditions that have impacted several sectors including nuclear power generation and farming, and led to restrictions on water use in 61 administrative regions.
French meteorological services expect very hot and dry weather next week, with a slight risk of a heatwave in the southeastern part of the country. This comes after a hot spell set record temperatures at the end of June.
The hot weather and lack of rainfall throughout the year have led to very low levels of groundwater, which contributes to the volume and flow of rivers, said Violaine Bault, hydrologist at French Geological Survey BRGM.
When groundwater decreases and there is no rainfall, rivers dry up.
The situation was more critical in the Loire, Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes and Burgundy regions in central and eastern France. The Rhone River has been severely impacted.
There has been very little rainfall in the region over the past three winters, Bault said.
French state-controlled utility EDF said on Tuesday that due to flow forecasts for the Rhone river, electricity generation could be restricted at its Bugey, St-Alban and Tricastin nuclear power plants from Saturday, July 20.
The nuclear plants, with a combined capacity of around 10,800 megawatts, use water from the river as coolant.
EDF's use of water is regulated by law to protect plant and animal life. It is obliged to reduce output during hot weather when water temperatures rise, or when river levels and the flow rate are low.
The company said two nuclear reactors at the St. Alban plant and one at Bugey could be impacted over the weekend, but production losses are expected to be lower from Monday.
A spokesman for EDF said the utility had carried out modifications at its reactors after the 2003 and 2006 heatwaves to adapt them to hot conditions.
He said the changes enabled the plants to cut water use, while ventilation systems were added to reduce the impact of high temperatures.
"NO RAIN FORECAST"
Grain crops in the EU's largest producing country should also be affected, especially spring crops such as maize and sunflower which are at key development stages. Wheat crops are less at risk, with harvesting underway in many parts of France.
Maize fields, which are widely irrigated, should suffer from increasing restrictions on water use.
Other fields have already passed a critical point, with farmers reporting irreparable damage.
"There is no rain forecast until the end of the month, so all of it will be roasted," said crop grower Christian Piveteau in Montbert, western France
"We had never seen a situation like this at this time of the year. Usually it rather happens late August, early September, after maize crops' flowering. Without rain, there will be nothing left," he said.
Livestock farmers will also be impacted as dry weather parched pastures used to feed animals for a second consecutive year. (Additional reporting by Gus Trompiz and Valerie Parent; Editing by Jan Harvey)
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