President Emmanuel Macron is expected to give the go-ahead for a cluster of nuclear reactors as Europe’s energy crisis spurs renewed French interest in the contentious source of power.
France is a bastion of nuclear power in Europe, with more than 70 per cent of its electricity derived from nuclear plants. However, after the disastrous 2011 explosion at a plant in Fukushima, Japan, and big cost overruns at a new plant in Flamanville in north-west France, national pride around France’s nuclear capability dissipated.
Early in his presidency Macron announced the intention to shut 14 reactors and cut nuclear’s contribution to France’s energy mix from 75 to 50 per cent by 2035.
But the mood is changing. This week, Macron is expected to announce the development of six so-called small modular reactors (SMRs), or “mini” nuclear plants.
Approval is also a way for Macron to show his pro-nuclear credentials when a number of his most likely challengers in next year’s presidential election are pushing for more investment.
“Nuclear is coming [back] to the fulcrum of the energy debate in France and much faster than I ever thought it would,” said Denis Florin, a partner at Lavoisier Conseil, an energy-focused management consultancy.
Advocates say nuclear power’s availability and predictability has proved its worth at a time of soaring gas prices — while renewable energy remains volatile and difficult to store. Those advantages, which have protected French industrial companies and consumers from the most severe price hikes seen in other parts of Europe, have begun to outweigh lingering safety concerns.
About 25 per cent of France’s electricity is sold at a regulated price of €42 per megawatt hour (MWh). The rest is subject to wider market prices and, specifically, a European pricing mechanism that means countries pay for the last unit of energy consumed — normally gas — which has led to some frustration among French consumers.
France’s finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, has advocated a complete overhaul of Europe’s electricity pricing mechanism, which he argues unfairly prevents French citizens from fully benefiting from its nuclear capability.
France also wants nuclear energy to be labelled as “green” in the evolving EU green finance taxonomy that determines which economic activities can benefit from a “sustainable finance” label. France and eastern European capitals want to show investors that nuclear energy is part of the EU’s journey towards carbon neutrality, while Germany and others have resisted, pointing principally to the environmental impact of nuclear waste.
Many on the left of French politics remain wedded to the idea of reducing France’s nuclear power supply, seeing it as a substitute for ambitious investment in renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar, at a crucial juncture in EU governments’ ambitions to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
But proponents of nuclear power argue that in recent weeks France has boasted much lower carbon emissions than Germany, which has been rapidly phasing out its nuclear fleet since 2011 and has invested heavily in renewable energy but has also become more reliant on coal.
Nicolas Goldberg, a senior energy analyst at Columbus Consulting, said Macron has now “firmly taken the path of seducing the right more than the left” with his nuclear policy, at a time when many rightwing presidential rivals promise that they would enhance France’s nuclear capability.
Centre-right candidate Valérie Pécresse said this month that she would halt the planned shutdown of 12 nuclear reactors and give the state-controlled energy company EDF the green light to produce six new nuclear power stations.
Eric Zemmour, who is rising quickly in polls after captivating the French public with his anti-immigration rhetoric, has also called for more nuclear investment and lambasted Macron’s investment in wind energy. “I do not want our country to lose its energy sovereignty under the pretext of an absurd energy transition copied from Germany,” he wrote in the magazine Le Point this month.
Such calls also reflect shifts in public opinion.
While a recent opinion poll by Odoxa found that the French public is still on the whole more favourable to wind power than nuclear, at 63 per cent compared with 51 per cent, French citizens’ support for nuclear has increased 17 percentage points over the past two years, while positive perceptions of wind power have decreased by the same amount.
According to the same survey, nuclear power is judged to be less expensive than wind and less damaging to the landscape, as well as being a field where France is “more advanced than its neighbours”.
Macron’s proposed six new “mini-reactors” run on technology that is billed to be less powerful but also less complex to produce and run than conventional reactors. Industry analysts say they help to keep France’s industrial competitiveness given that prototypes are already being developed in China, Russia, the US and Japan.
Several analysts believe Macron will go deeper into nuclear technology through the construction of at least six conventional European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs), to be built by 2044 — a project the government has mulled for years. Documents obtained by the French press in 2019 suggested those would cost France’s heavily indebted EDF roughly €47bn.
This month RTE, the French grid operator, is due to publish six scenarios for France’s future energy mix by 2050, ranging from 100 per cent renewable energy to several new nuclear plants. “I am confident that Macron will announce six or eight new EPR power plants at the end of this month — he’s just waiting for this report,” said Goldberg.
For those who have spent years advocating greater investment in renewable energy sources, and thought they had the president’s ear, the mounting momentum towards nuclear has come as a disappointment.
“Every euro invested in nuclear is a euro not invested in other energies,” said Matthieu Orphelin, an MP who used to represent Macron’s party but has now switched to France’s Greens. “A permanent, headlong rush into nuclear power will not save us.”