Why is France so obsessed with nuclear power?

Workers in white overalls remove a nuclear fuel bar from a pool of coolant water at the shut-down nuclear power station at Fessenheim
Workers at the decommissioned Fessenheim nuclear plant in France remove a fuel bar. Photo: Sebastien Bozon / AFP
French President Emmanuel Macron scattergunned a lot of ambitious vision into a speech in which he unveiled a €30 billion ‘green’ industry investment plan - but his controversial investment in nuclear power caught the eye.

Rapid-fire references to Europe’s first low-carbon aeroplane, green-hydrogen factories, French-built semiconductors and millions of electric vehicles – all up and running by 2030 – were bulleted into a speech perhaps most politely described as wide-ranging.

Controversially, his speech included a new commitment to nuclear power, as Europe faces up to an energy crisis- reversing several years of efforts to reduce the country’s dependence on this form of energy production.

Macron said France will invest €1 billion in nuclear power by the end of this decade – some five years earlier than previous best estimates. “The number one objective is to have innovative small-scale nuclear reactors in France by 2030 along with better waste management,” he said.

His plan is to roll-out a number of so-called Small Modular Reactors to meet rising demand for energy.

These produce between 10MW and 300MW of electricity, compared to the current range of 900-1,450MW produced by conventional reactors – and are easier to build. They, basically, arrive in kit form for on-site assembly.

Environmental campaigners, convinced Macron was on their side, are disappointed in the U-turn back towards nuclear power.

“Every euro invested in nuclear is a euro not invested in other energies,” said green MP Matthieu Orphelin. “A permanent, headlong rush into nuclear power will not save us.”

FRANCE’S NUCLEAR DEPENDENCE

  • The first nuclear power plant in France opened in 1962. There are currently 56 operational reactors at 18 plants across the country.

  • In 1974, just after the first oil crisis, the French government decided to expand nuclear power capacity in an effort to improve what is known as energy security under the Messmer plan, named after the Prime Minister of the day, Pierre Messmer. It aimed to build around 80 nuclear plants by 1985 and a total of 170 by 2000. Work on the first three plants, at Tricastin, Gravelines, and Dampierre started the same year and France installed 56 reactors over the next 15 years.

  • France gets about 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy,. Recent Government policy – until Macron’s speech at least – was to reduce the country’s nuclear dependency to 50 percent by 2035. 

  • About 17 percent of France’s electricity is generated using recycled nuclear fuel.

  • France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity – it makes more than €3 billion per year selling electricity abroad. Its main customers are Italy, Spain, the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg.

  • But at periods of high demand – because of the way the energy network is set up in France – it becomes a net importer of electricity on the often high-priced international spot market.

  • Pro-nuclear advocates point to the fact it is a relatively clean means of electricity production. Carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation in France are low because more than 80 percent of France’s electricity comes from nuclear or hydro-electric sources. Environmentalists, however, point to the potential risks of nuclear power.

Member comments

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.