France’s Minister for Energy Transition, Agnes Pannier-Runacher, in an extensive interview with La Tribune Dimanche, said a new draft law on energy security will propose construction of eight more EPR reactors in addition to the six already planned.

“It is a question of getting France out of its dependence on fossil fuels, which represent more than 60% of the energy we consume. My ambition is to lower this figure to 40% in 2035,” she said. The text sets ambitious targets for the deployment of nuclear and renewables. “It breaks with the previous programming law, which reduced the share of nuclear power in the electrical mix to 50% by 2025 [the date was amended to 2035 in 2019]”, she noted.

“The text gives pride of place to nuclear power by asserting the intention to deploy eight EPR reactors in addition to the six already announced, without setting a specific target on the share of renewables by 2030. It takes nuclear power beyond the first six EPRs since the historic park will not continue for ever.” She noted that the technology was not specified in the text but said it is a question of committing, after 2026, to construction of an additional 13 GWe “which corresponds well to the power of eight EPRs, without engraving in marble this or that technology”.

She stressed the need to have a minimum base of controllable energies, in particular nuclear, hydraulic, biomass, or storage. “These sources of energy do not depend on weather conditions, unlike wind and solar. The final goal is to produce more electricity than we consume. This is where renewables need to be massaged.”

Asked about the Flamanville EPR under construction in France, which is 12 years behind schedule, she noted that this is “probably the largest industrial project in the last 50 years”. She added: “For several years, we have been working to strengthen the industrial excellence of our SMEs [small & medium enterprises] and ETI [ethical trading initiative] and develop training to recruit 100,000 people within 10 years. All of this will be essential.”

On the possibility of the draft law being blocked in parliament, she said consensus was possible. “I have already passed two bills with large majorities. I want to confront political groups with their responsibilities and avoid postures. If we agree to decarbonise energy and ensure security of supply at the most competitive price, there is no reason not to find a compromise.”

A bill organising the merger of the France’s nuclear regulatory agency ASN, (Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire) and its technical arm, IRSN (Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire), will be debated in the Senate in early February. This project was reworked in early 2023 and remains controversial. Asked whether this was merger really necessary, Pannier-Runacher said she strongly believed that the reform will lead to greater safety efficiency. “Today, when the ASN and IRSN are faced with a new problem, such as corrosion on a pipe, they have to negotiate a protocol to agree on how to deal with the subject. Bringing them together into a single entity will bring fluidity without changing our security requirements.”

The topics to be discussed at the forthcoming Nuclear Policy Council (NPC), meeting, she noted will address the issue of nuclear fuel recycling infrastructure, “which represents hundreds of millions of euros of investment”. This is a key issue to reduce waste and remain sovereign over the entire nuclear cycle, she stressed. “We have to make decisions; building new capabilities is part of our options. In addition, decisions on small modular nuclear reactors, beyond the financial support of France 2030, could be taken. Finally, we will discuss research programmes and our international strategy.”

On international activities, she said she planned to visit the Czech Republic and India. “The idea is to strengthen our partnership by relying on Czech industry to increase our European reactor production capacities. We will also take stock of the 14-country nuclear alliance and discuss the next nuclear summit scheduled for March.”

She added that India and the Czech Republic “are two countries where EDF hopes to win contracts for the construction of reactors, but competition remains strong, especially against the American Westinghouse” However, she remained confident in EDF's export capabilities.

Image: Agnès Pannier-Runacher, French minister for the energy transition