how France has become a world power of nuclear energy – Energy Magazine


France gets about 70% of its electricity from nuclear power, according to the IAEA. It is the highest figure in the world. The country has the second largest number of nuclear reactors in the world: 56 compared to 94 in the US.

What advantages and disadvantages this brings to France, analyzes the IRTTEK Institute for Energy Magazine.

By Mikhail Smyshlyaev

Moscow, Russia.- France has been on the path of leadership in nuclear power for quite some time. One of the first important steps was taken in 1945 under the mandate of Charles de Gaulle. The Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (CEA) was created, headed by Frédéric Joliot-Curie, emblematic figure, famous physicist and son-in-law of Marie Sklodowska-Curie. Three years later he was commissioned to start up the country’s first nuclear reactor.

In 1946 Eléctricité de France was created, which became the largest electrical company in the world. Today it is still the company that manages all the nuclear facilities in the country and is the largest producer of electricity in Europe. And then, in the postwar period, the company became the main lever for the country’s recovery from the crisis, helping to rebuild the devastated country. By the way, in 2021, the French signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian company Rosatom. The parties agreed to develop research and development activities and develop new hydrogen technologies.

Eléctricité de France brilliantly coped with its role as post-war economic rebuilder. Nuclear power began to emerge in France. In 1964 the first nuclear power plant was inaugurated. But the country finally decided to embark on the “nuclear road” during the 1973 oil crisis.

The current electricity generation structure in France was created by the French government in 1974, just after the crisis. This decision was made because the country had experience in heavy engineering, and did not have many fossil resources. Nuclear power seemed to be the best option.

By the way, many European countries thought about diversifying their energy sector after the 1973 oil crisis. Some started developing wind power, like Denmark, while France developed its own nuclear plan. Prime Minister Pierre Messmer promised to build 80 nuclear power plants by 1985 and 170 by the year 2000. Of course, the plans were adjusted over time, but between 1974 and 1989, 56 nuclear power plants appeared.

In 1986, the infamous Chernobyl catastrophe greatly shook the position of nuclear energy in Europe. Anti-nuclear movements were activated. In fact, they had acted before, often quite radically. In France, for example, in 1982 a Swiss activist fired five rocket-propelled grenades at the Cress-Malville nuclear power plant under construction. Fortunately, without too many consequences. Interestingly, the attacker, Haim Nissim, was elected to the legislative body of the Canton of Geneva by the Swiss Green Party three years after the attack.

Another big blow to the global nuclear power industry was, of course, the tragedy in Fukushima in 2011. Many countries then began to rethink their attitude towards nuclear power plants. Germany not only began to actively abandon nuclear energy, but also reluctantly looked towards its nuclear neighbor, France.

The French themselves, following Fukushima, improved stress tests at nuclear power plants and analyzed procedures in the event of an accident. However, the president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, had no intention of giving up nuclear energy, since it threatened, and still does, with the loss of thousands of jobs. No politician in his right mind would do such a thing. France’s next president, François Hollande, did offer some semblance of an “energy transition,” announcing plans to reduce nuclear power plants by a third to 38. Germany has greeted the announcement with hope, especially given the recurrent news of failures in French nuclear power plants. For example, in February 2020, France closed a reactor at its oldest nuclear power plant in Fessenheim, on the border with Germany, due to reports of cracks in the reactor lid and other malfunctions.

In general, the deterioration of the nuclear infrastructure is a sore point. One in three nuclear reactors in France is 40 years old or older and needs costly modernization. Very expensive, no doubt. To give you an idea, it can be said that a “facelift”, or to be more precise, an improvement in security after the Fukushima tragedy cost the French about 2,000 million dollars. Does France, exhausted by the covid-19 crisis, have money for a total modernization of its reactors? It’s hard to believe. At a time when dependence on nuclear power plants places the country in a vulnerable position and gives it little room for manoeuvre.

In the process of this “maneuver”, last February it was confirmed that France will extend the useful life of its 32 oldest nuclear reactors for another 10 years. At the same time, there is an active export of nuclear technology, and about 17% of the country’s electricity is produced from spent nuclear fuel.

And in November 2021, the next French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced that the country was preparing to start construction of new reactors. And under the watchful eye of environmentalists. In January 2022, the Minister of the Environment, Barbara Pompili, declared that the plans for the new reactors will be presented in 2023 and will be operational between 2035 and 2037. The new reactors will be EPR2, that is, new generation.

Emmanuel Macron unveiled his plans to invest in small reactor technology and in the massive production of hydrogen with nuclear energy. According to the president, the new reactors will help reduce dependence on foreign sources for energy supply and, above all, in light of recent trends, will help meet global warming targets and keep prices under control.

France will hold another presidential election in April 2022 and the consumer price of electricity cannot be ignored. France is currently the largest net exporter of electricity in the world, due to its very low production costs, and receives more than 3,000 million euros a year for it. It is money that cannot be wasted.

The plans are made and at the moment half of the reactors are located near the French international borders. In the event of an accident, a cloud of radiation would reach its neighbors.

But France is struggling to find a compromise with its neighbors and with itself. It’s a tangle that aims to reassure its neighbors, reduce its own reliance on nuclear power plants, somehow upgrade old reactors, and let’s not forget the Paris Agreement on climate change. And preferably with minimal damage to the state budget. And without political consequences.

It is not yet clear what all this will turn into, whether it will remain populist rhetoric or whether we will see a real transformation.

Mikhail Smyshlyaev of the IRTTEK Institute

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