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Macron Signals France Will Sustain Nuclear Power

Nuclear energy reassuming its roll as the linchpin of energy independence in France

March 3, 2022

French President Emanuel Macron announced recently that the country will be building at least 6 new nuclear reactors, with the possibility of an additional 8 if the country decides to utilize new Small Modular Reactor (SMR) designs. The goal of these new units is to allow the country to expand its electrical capacity without increasing its greenhouse gas emissions.

This new capacity would also allow the country to continue to maintain the critical energy independence it has achieved in recent decades.

Although the Macron government has wavered in its commitment to nuclear power in the past, most notably in the case of the Fessenheim power station’s closure, as well as the commitment that currently remains on the books to reduce the share of France’s energy provided by nuclear power to 50 percent by 2035 and further phase out the technology later on (the timeline on this has been pushed back already). This newest push may signal that the country is now willing to move past the nuclear phaseout plan altogether. 

With this new commitment from the Macron government, it is likely that the 2035 date will not come into effect, considering that nuclear power already accounts for 70 percent of French electricity, especially because the announcement includes a commitment to extending the operating lives of the country’s existing reactors from 40 years to 50 years. This extension will allow the country to reap energy savings because far and away the highest costs involved in nuclear energy are initial construction costs, so getting an extra decade of reliable baseload capacity out of these reactors is a logical move. 

As energy security issues abound in Europe this winter, it’s becoming increasingly clear that abundant electricity is not just vital to everyday life and comforts, but that it also comes with sweeping foreign policy implications. As Russia invades Ukraine, the foreign policy implications of energy dependence are visible in stark relief. 

A country like Germany, which is reliant on Russian natural gas imports, is limited in its willingness to respond to Russian aggression. The energy independence that nuclear power has brought to France means that it is not similarly reliant on natural gas imports to maintain its electrical grid, and is not so limited. 

That being said, Électricité de France (EDF), the largest government-owned utility that operates France’s nuclear power plants, has its own problems to deal with, experiencing budget shortfalls and project delays on many of its recent nuclear development projects. The utility also maintains burdensome debts. A state-operated utility is of course a sub-optimal situation regardless of what technology decisions it makes, and this state-run utility has certainly experienced its share of such errors. 

These new reactors would come with tens of billions of dollars in state funding, and may still struggle to stay on schedule and under budget, as many of the company’s recent projects have had serious issues with this. According to Macron, these missteps may provide valuable insight into the construction of these new reactors, “we have learned lessons from the construction of EPR in Finland, where it is now complete, and in France at Flamanville. EDF has undertaken with the nuclear sector the design of a new reactor for the French market”. 

The future of the country’s electricity infrastructure is a major topic in the upcoming presidential election, with Macron’s Centrist Party in support of his announcement. They are joined by Le Rassemblement National to the far right, and Les Républicains to the right in support of nuclear expansion while the Green Party on the left vocally opposes new nuclear development. They are joined in this by the Communist Party’s candidate. 

On the other side of this issue we find the remainder of the parties on the left, the leftist La France Insoumise, the Environmentalist Party candidate, and the Socialist Party candidate.

The candidate for the Environmentalist party whose platform centers on climate change, Yannick Jadot, is pushing for the country to phase out its nuclear power, saying that there is a “moral imperative” to do so. He cites concerns over safety and waste, despite the country’s excellent track record for safety and the fact that 17 percent of French electricity is provided by reprocessed nuclear waste.

The conversation around this issue is bound to be a central point of debate in the French Presidential Election on April 10th. As Macron is set to formally begin his campaign at a Marseille rally on March 5th, the debate on this is sure to evolve. 

Although it is good to see France turning away from the path to heavy reliance on wind and solar that countries like Germany have taken, it still remains a distinct possibility that the construction of these new reactors, especially because they are centrally planned, will go over time and over budget and create problems of their own in that way. Ultimately, it is imperative for energy source decision-making to be in line with reality. In terms of price constraints and expected energy demand, the choice to maintain France’s utilization of nuclear as a resource is a wise one.

This piece was produced by Paige Lambermont, a Policy Associate at IER