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France’s Nuclear Gamble
“WE MAY NOT HAVE OIL, BUT WE HAVE NUCLEAR POWER”
Nuclear power is a major source of energy in France, with a 40% share of energy consumption in 2015. Nuclear power is the largest source of electricity in the country, with a generation of 379.1 TWh, or 71.6% of the country’s total production of 519.4 TWh, the highest percentage in the world. Électricité de France (EDF) – the country’s main electricity generation and distribution company – manages the country’s 58 power reactors. EDF is substantially owned by the French Government, with around 85% shares in government hands. France exported 38 TWh of electricity to its neighbours in 2017. France becomes a net-importer of electricity when demand exceeds supply, in rare cases of very inclement weather, because of the lack of more flexible generating plants.
France has a long relationship with nuclear power, starting with Henri Becquerel‘s discovery of natural radioactivity in the 1890s and continued by famous nuclear scientists like Pierre and Marie Curie.
Before World War II, France had been mainly involved in nuclear research through the work of the Joliot-Curies. In 1945 the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF) created the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA) governmental agency, and Nobel prize winner Frédéric Joliot-Curie, member of the French Communist Party (PCF) since 1942, was appointed high-commissioner. He was relieved of his duties in 1950 for political reasons, and would be one of the 11 signatories to the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955. The CEA was created by Charles de Gaulle on 18 October 1945. Its mandate is to conduct fundamental and applied research into many areas, including the design of nuclear reactors, the manufacturing of integrated circuits, the use of radionuclides for medical treatments, seismology and tsunami propagation, and the safety of computerized systems.
Nuclear research was discontinued for a time after the war because of the instability of the Fourth Republic and the lack of finances available. However, in the 1950s a civil nuclear research program was started, a by-product of which would be plutonium. In 1956 a secret Committee for the Military Applications of Atomic Energy was formed and a development program for delivery vehicles started. In 1957, soon after the Suez Crisis and the diplomatic tension with both the USSR and the United States, French president René Coty decided the creation of the C.S.E.M. in what was then French Sahara, a new nuclear testing facility replacing the CIEES testing facility. The first nuclear power plant by EDF in France was opened in 1962.
Following the 2011 Fukushima I nuclear accidents, the head of France’s nuclear safety agency has said that France needs to upgrade the protection of vital functions in all its nuclear reactors to avoid a disaster in the event of a natural calamity, adding there was no need to close any plants. “There is a need to add a layer to protect safety mechanisms in reactors that are vital for the protection of the reactor such as cooling functions and electric powering,” Jacques Repussard, head of the IRSN, said. Opinion polls show support for atomic energy has dropped since Fukushima. Forty percent of the French “are ‘hesitant’ about nuclear energy while a third are in favor and 17 percent are against, according to a survey by pollster Ifop published November 13”.
In February 2012, President Sarkozy decided to extend the life of existing nuclear reactors beyond 40 years, following the Court of Audit decision that this is the best option as new nuclear capacity or other forms of energy would be more costly and available too late. Within ten years 22 out of the 58 reactors will have been operating for over 40 years. The court expects EDF’s projected investment programme in existing plant, including post Fukushima safety improvements, will add between 9.5% and 14.5% to generation costs, taking costs to between 37.9 and 54.2 EUR/MWh. Generation costs from the new Flamanville EPR reactor are estimated to be at least in the 70 to 90 EUR/MWh range, depending on construction outcome. Academics at Paris Dauphine University forecast that domestic electricity prices will rise by about 30% by 2020.
Following François Hollande‘s victory in the 2012 presidential election, it was thought that there might be a partial nuclear phaseout in France. This followed a national debate in the run-up to the election, with President Nicolas Sarkozy backing nuclear power and François Hollande proposing a cut in nuclear power’s electricity contribution by more than a third by 2025. It seemed certain that Hollande would at least order the closure of the Fessenheim Nuclear Power Plant by 2017 where there has been an ongoing closure campaign due to concerns about seismic activity and flooding.
Active efforts by the French government to market the advanced European Pressurized Reactor have been hampered by cost overruns, delays, and competition from other nations, such as South Korea, which offer simpler, cheaper reactors. In 2015, the National Assembly voted that by 2025 only 50% of France’s energy will be produced by nuclear plants. Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot noted in November 2017 that this goal is unrealistic, postponing the reduction to 2030 or 2035.
In 2016, following a discovery at Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant, about 400 large steel forgings manufactured by Le Creusot Forge since 1965 have been found to have carbon-content irregularities that weakened the steel. A widespread programme of reactor checks was started involving a progressive programme of reactor shutdowns, likely to continue over the winter high electricity demand period into 2017. This caused power price increases in Europe as France increased electricity imports, especially from Germany, to augment supply. As of late October 2016, 20 of France’s 58 reactors are offline. These steel quality concerns may prevent the regulator giving the life extensions from 40 to 50 years, that had been assumed by energy planners, for many reactors. In December 2016 the Wall Street Journal characterised the problem as a “decades long coverup of manufacturing problems”, with Areva executives acknowledging that Le Creusot had been falsifying documents.
In November 2018, President Macron announced the 50% nuclear power reduction target is being delayed to 2035, and would involve closing fourteen 900 MWe reactors. The two oldest reactors, units 1 and 2 at Fessenheim, will close in 2020. A decision on any new nuclear build will be taken in 2021.
The nuclear fusion project International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is constructing the world’s largest and most advanced experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor in the south of France. A collaboration between the European Union (EU), India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States, the project aims to make a transition from experimental studies of plasma physics to electricity-producing fusion power plants. In 2005, Greenpeace International issued a press statement criticizing government funding of the ITER, believing the money should have been diverted to renewable energy sources and claiming that fusion energy would result in nuclear waste and nuclear weapons proliferation issues. A French association including about 700 anti-nuclear groups, Sortir du nucléaire (Get Out of Nuclear Energy), claimed that ITER was a hazard because scientists did not yet know how to manipulate the high-energy deuterium and tritium hydrogen isotopes used in the fusion process. According to most anti-nuclear groups, nuclear fusion power “remains a distant dream”. The World Nuclear Association says that fusion “presents so far insurmountable scientific and engineering challenges”. Construction of the ITER facility began in 2007, but the project has run into many delays and budget overruns. The facility is now not expected to begin operations until the year 2027 – 11 years after initially anticipated.
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