President Emmanuel Macron of France did an about-face by announcing his pledge to construct up to 14 new-generation reactors and a fleet of smaller nuclear plants. Macron had previously pledged to reduce France’s reliance on nuclear power. But now he says “The time has come for a nuclear renaissance,” as Europe is facing skyrocketing natural gas and electricity prices because of its move to renewable energy, principally wind and solar power. Nuclear energy production has dropped in Europe as France, the largest nuclear power producer in Europe, had to take some of its nuclear plants offline for maintenance. France wants to cement its position as Europe’s biggest atomic power producer and position Électricité de France, or EDF, to compete against Chinese and American companies in the global market for nuclear energy.
France plans to construct six next-generation pressurized water reactors at existing nuclear sites starting in 2028 at an estimated starting price of 50 billion euros ($57 billion), with an option to consider building up to eight more by 2050. France also plans to build a prototype small modular reactor by 2030, as other countries (e.g. China) are also constructing modular reactors. In December, China brought on line a pebble bed reactor —the fourth generation of high-temperature gas reactor—in East China’s Shandong Province with generation capacity of around 200 megawatts. The nuclear industry’s potential role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions has become a central issue in France’s coming presidential election.
Germany and some other European nations are wary of nuclear proliferation. Germany, for example, plans to close its last nuclear power plants this year, following a 2011 policy set by former Chancellor Angela Merkel after the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan. Environmental groups also are against building nuclear power plants ostensibly because nuclear power generates long-term radioactive waste.
France’s Nuclear Industry
France’s nuclear industry is a national priority, creating about 200,000 jobs directly and indirectly. France has 56 nuclear reactors — the most after the United States, with 93 — generating 70 percent of its electricity and exporting electricity to other countries. EDF, however, recently warned that its nuclear energy production would drop to the lowest levels since the 1990s because of problems at some sites. The company has temporarily closed 10 reactors, down from 17 in December, for maintenance and to fix cracks found in pipes at some plants. As a result, France has had to generate more power from its coal-fired power plants, import coal-generated electricity from Germany and rely on natural gas imports as energy prices spiked due to shortages of natural gas, low wind resources, and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Russia typically supplies about 40 percent of Europe’s natural gas imports, but it has reduced deliveries.
France’s Macron realizes that the country’s existing wind and solar power capacity cannot make up for the shortfall in its nuclear energy output. As such, Macron also intends to construct at least 50 offshore wind farms, double France’s capacity of onshore wind power, and increase its solar power capacity tenfold, to reach over 100 gigawatts by 2030 because wind and solar plants can be built quicker than nuclear power plants due to less regulatory oversight, satisfying France’s more immediate energy needs.
Like in the United States with units 3 and 4 at the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, France’s pressurized nuclear reactors have faced delays and cost overruns. For example, a reactor in the northwestern town of Flamanville in France that was supposed to be completed in 2012 at a cost of €3 billion ($3.4 billion) will not open until at least 2023, with the cost increasing to over €12 billion ($13.66 billion)—a factor of 4. Another French built reactor in Finland was planned to open in 2009, but it is not expected to start full power production until June. The EDF-backed Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in China’s Guangdong Province also faced “performance issues” last year. Macron plans on the French government to “assume its responsibilities” in securing EDF’s finances and its short- and medium-term financing capacity. France will provide the company with what is likely to be tens of billions in state aid now that the European Union classified nuclear energy as a green investment.
French candidates running for office, including President Macron, realize that the country needs to continue its nuclear power program in order to have reliable power that also reduces carbon dioxide emissions. As such, Macron plans to construct with government aid at least 6 nuclear reactors and to develop a modular prototype unit. In the meantime, France will continue to build offshore wind and solar units, which can be built quicker and supply more immediate energy needs than the nuclear plants.
Despite the United States currently having more reactors than France, other than 2 units under construction at the Vogtle nuclear plant in Georgia, there are no plans to add more nuclear power in the United States. President Biden’s energy plans are to construct wind and solar units with Federal incentives to replace current fossil fuel generated electricity and to replace fossil fuels in the other energy consuming sectors with electricity generated by renewable energy and backed up by batteries. The feasibility of that enormous undertaking is questionable, especially in view of Europe’s ongoing energy crisis caused in large measure by similar policies.