The success of the French nuclear sector has long been recognised. With 58 reactors operated by EDF based on a standardised PWR (pressurised water reactor), the French nuclear sector produces a huge amount of low-carbon energy – 384TWh in 2016. 

In practical terms, this means that French nuclear provides a remarkable 76-78% of the electricity produced in France. With renewables coming on stream rapidly and amounting to 16% of energy generation, France is close to 95% low-carbon in many years.

Significantly, France is now largely energy independent and is even the world’s largest net exporter of electricity due to its low cost of generation. This is a tremendous achievement particularly when placed alongside other European countries, which rely more on fossil fuels such as coal and gas.

Indeed, Germany’s decision to phase out nuclear power post-Fukushima has resulted in an increasing reliance on the very fossil fuels that its government is trying to phase out – almost half of Germany’s electricity is generated by coal.

Further afield, nuclear power is not being renewed fast enough to match existing generating capacity. For example, in the United States, which has the largest amount of nuclear reactors globally – 100 in total – some speculate that as many as two-thirds of America’s reactors could shut down by 2030. 

As many countries confront the challenge of decarbonising their economies and societies following the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, France is already a global leader in producing low carbon energy.

Nuclear credentials

France’s expertise in and commitment to nuclear power is seen in a number of other areas. Though delayed, the much- publicised new power station at Flamanville in Normandy is still under construction, and Areva continues to construct the Olkiluoto 3 EPR in Finland.

Last year, the UK’s new-build nuclear programme received a massive boost as the UK government gave the green light for EDF to build the country’s first nuclear power plant in a generation at Hinkley Point C in Somerset.

France is well-known for its strong global role in developing new nuclear technology too. It has been active in developing three Gen IV technologies that include a gas-cooled fast reactor, a sodium-cooled fast reactor, and a very high temperature reactor (gas-cooled). Interest from the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in the fast reactors focuses on the fact that they will produce less waste and better exploit uranium resources much of which is stockpiled in France.

Reactors and fuel products and services have been significant exports too. The French nuclear industry annually accounts for several billion euros of export revenue.

Question marks

Some commentators have questioned nuclear’s future dominance in France’s energy mix. They point to a commitment made several years ago by President François Hollande to reduce France’s dependence on nuclear power.

The French government’s Energy Transition for Green Growth bill of October 2014 adjusted the future contribution of nuclear power to electricity supply, setting a target of 50% by 2025. The plan, to replace some nuclear capacity with renewables, is an attempt to give France a more balanced energy mix.

Far from seeing this as negative, I believe that French nuclear is here to stay and that its prospects are bright. The reasons are simple.

• Complement to renewables

First, nuclear remains the only proven stable method to produce a large amount of carbon-free base-load energy. Therefore, it is extremely compatible with renewables.

Importantly, it is the only way that France will meet its long term commitments to reduce CO2 emissions as currently, we aren’t able to store large amounts of renewable energy.

In fact, CO2 emissions reduction is an integral part of the Green Growth bill or ‘Transition énergétique’ which foresees a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 40% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels, and by 75% by 2050. This will only be achieved by continued investments and upgrades in French nuclear capacity which have been promised by the government.

• Employment

Second, the French nuclear industry is a major employer and employs several hundred thousand people across the country.

These high-skilled jobs enable France to develop some of the best, most advanced nuclear technology in the world, which is then exported to rapidly-growing emerging markets such as China and India.

Failing to maintain this embedded nuclear expertise would be extremely damaging to France and its economy. While the overall share of nuclear as a percentage of energy generation in France will go down, it fails to take account of the enormous contribution that French nuclear technology is making across the world.

• Energy security

Third, in an increasingly uncertain world, nuclear provides France with a high level of energy security as well as surplus electricity that it can export through interconnectors with the UK, for example.

Far from competition, more renewables such as wind, solar and hydro complement nuclear by giving France a more flexible energy mix.

For the French nuclear sector to succeed France must tackle a number of challenges including extending the plant life of its power stations from 40 to 60 years. We should have confidence that the Grand Carénage programme worth €55 billion will address this.

Significantly, France must upgrade the safety of its nuclear power station based on the learnings from Fukushima as well
as shut down its oldest power plants (e.g. Fessenheim) replacing them with newer, safer and more efficient larger reactors such as the Flamanville 3 EPR.

France must prepare and plan for a wave of replacement facilities for existing PWRs particularly from 2030-2040 with Generation III+ (EPR) and potentially Generation IV reactors, which offer efficient large-scale power and less waste.

Fusion in France

It would be remiss not to mention Iter – possibly the most exciting energy project in the world today.

Based in the south of France, the Iter project is a collaboration of 35 nations including China, the EU, India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the USA which have joined together to build the world’s largest tokamak, a magnetic fusion device that has been designed to validate the feasibility of large- scale fusion.

A bright future awaits France’s nuclear sector, it will be an interesting story to follow. 

About the author: Christophe Bouvet is Global VP Power & Energy-Nuclear at SPX FLOW, and is based in Annecy, France.