The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS) has released its latest issue, “A French nuclear exit?,” featuring four comprehensive editorials on the complexities of a possible French nuclear phase-out.
Kicking off the first portion of this five-part installment on PennEnergy.com is an introductory overview from BAS deputy editor John Mecklin and the first editorial analysis in this special series, “Nuclear power and the French energy transition: It’s the economics, stupid!,” by Paris-based energy expert Mycle Schneider.
Introduction: A French nuclear exit?
By John Mecklin
Since the end of World War II, France’s nuclear program has been a part of that country’s quest for relevance on the world stage—at first in military terms and later in regard to civilian nuclear power. In recent decades, in fact, France has been held up, worldwide, as the example of effective use of fission to produce electricity. State-controlled utility Électricité de France SA provides three-quarters of the country’s electricity via nuclear power plants; another majority-state-owned firm, Areva SA, builds nuclear reactors and provides various nuclear technologies around the world. In some ways, nuclear power has become central to the very idea of a strong and economically independent France.
Following the multiple core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in 2011, many countries took a hard look at shrinking their nuclear power programs, and several—notably, Germany—decided to leave the nuclear sector altogether. But because of its huge investment in the nuclear path, France is a special case. A diminishment in its support for nuclear power would have profound global ramifications, and so far, France has not followed Germany down the phase-out path. The future of the French civilian nuclear power effort is, however, in question, for many complex reasons laid out in this special issue of the Bulletin, “A French nuclear exit?”
In his article, “Nuclear power and the French energy transition: It’s the economics, stupid!,” Paris-based energy expert Mycle Schneider explains in compelling detail why France is at an energy crossroads. EDF and Areva both face serious financial difficulties; the French nuclear fleet is aging, with 22 of the country’s 58 reactors set to reach their 40-year lifetimes inside a decade; and in the wake of Fukushima, public opinion has tilted, at least to a degree, in favor of reducing the nation’s reliance on nuclear power.
For France, the choice seems clear: Extend the lives of reactors that have already outlived their original operating schedules, or shrink the nuclear sector and focus on alternative energy and energy-efficiency programs. The politics connected to that choice are, however, anything but clear.
In his companion article, “France’s great energy debate,” Schneider describes a political landscape that has become less supportive of nuclear power than has historically been the case. The new president, François Hollande, is the first in French history to advocate reducing nuclear power use, and he has asked Delphine Batho, Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development, and Energy, to organize an extensive, multi-stakeholder debate that is expected to last several months and to make concrete recommendations on the country’s energy future. Just the same, Schneider notes that, who exactly will steer that debate remains uncertain. And so it remains unclear whether the Hollande administration will shift away from nuclear power in the face of determined opposition by the powerful pro-nuclear technocrats who have long inhabited key positions throughout the government.
If France ever does decide to exit the nuclear sector, the executive branch, the Parliament, and the people clearly have the power to put in place the legislation, regulations, or constitutional amendments required for a phase-out. Even so, Paris-based environmental lawyer Alexandre Faro writes in “The legalities of leaving nuclear,” those laws, regulations, or amendments will have to be carefully drawn to avoid large damage claims from the operator of France’s nuclear plants, EDF. And before such significant changes in the legal landscape are likely to occur, he notes, the historical political consensus in favor of nuclear power will also have to change dramatically.
The French nuclear program was born in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Charles de Gaulle was determined to make France count in international affairs, and to keep it militarily independent of both the United States and the Soviet Union. As the decades passed, the country’s military effort spawned a civilian nuclear power program, and these initiatives grew increasingly intertwined with one another—and with the French national identity. As nuclear arms experts Patrice Bouveret, Bruno Barrillot, and Dominique Lalanne argue in their provocative article, “Nuclear chromosomes: The national security implications of a French nuclear exit,” it could take a reimagining of that identity—and a reassessment of France’s need for a nuclear deterrent—before the country can seriously entertain the possibility of phasing out its civilian nuclear program. Economics, politics, and legalities notwithstanding, before France can exit the nuclear power industry, it may have to change its idea of itself.