France’s love affair with nuclear power will continue, but change is underway

France is renowned for being a hotbed of culture, gastronomy and style. The country is also something of a world leader in another field: nuclear energy.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, France is home to 56 operating nuclear power reactors, second only to the United States, which has 94.

Together, these French facilities have a combined capacity of 61,370 megawatts (MW). And when it comes to the share of nuclear power in French electricity production, the IAEA says it was 70.6% in 2019, the highest in the world.

Next, CNBC’s “Sustainable Energy” looks at the role nuclear power could play in the energy future of France and the rest of the world.

An important player

Peter Osbaldstone, research director at the Wood Mackenzie research group, told CNBC by email that France was “by far the largest nuclear power generator in Europe.”

“The intensity of emissions from French energy is lower than that of its main neighbors, since the market has a relatively small part of the total supply that is supplied by fossil fuels,” he continued explaining.

“Since marginal low-cost nuclear power is so prominent in the mix, French wholesale energy prices tend to be lower than in neighboring markets as well,” he added, adding that this factor also influenced prices. end-user prices, which were also comparatively low.

Andrew Lever, director of the Carbon Trust, an advisory firm, told CNBC that France had “enjoyed a low dependence on fossil-based power generation.”

“Therefore, from a carbon reduction perspective, it starts from a lower basis point relative to other economies that rely more on fossil fuel-based generation,” he added.

Macron’s mission

Last December, French President Emmanuel Macron noted that nuclear power would continue to play an important role in the country’s energy mix.

According to a translation of his comments published by Reuters, Macron said that the French nuclear industry “will continue to be the cornerstone of our strategic autonomy.”

Macron’s comments suggest that France will continue its relationship with nuclear power long into the future, but change is underway nonetheless. In fact, by 2035, the government wants to reduce the share of nuclear power in its electricity mix to 50%. So a mixed picture.

For his part, Wood Mackenzie’s Osbaldstone said the 50% target did not mean the technology had fallen completely out of favor, noting that in 2019 the French government had “instructed EDF to explore the possibility of building six new reactors in three sites “. The utility company, he added, “should respond by mid-2021.”

The challenges of decarbonization

The International Energy Agency states that “nuclear power has historically been one of the largest contributors of carbon-free electricity globally” and adds that it also has “significant potential to contribute to the decarbonization of the energy sector.”

However, it should be noted that while the IEA says it produces carbon-free electricity, nuclear power is viewed by many as a non-renewable source. This is because they argue that uranium, the crucial metal for nuclear power generation, will eventually run out.

Carbon Trust’s Lever told CNBC that for any economy, the level of investment required to decarbonize the energy supply was “massive.”

And while the cost of renewable technologies such as photovoltaic solar energy and onshore and offshore wind energy had enjoyed a “substantial reduction”, the same could not be said for “new nuclear energy”, where there was “a lack of constant cost reduction “.

“From a new construction perspective, there are risks of construction delays and cost management, which in turn present risks to the cost of transition and ultimately energy costs to consumers,” he said Lever.

“In addition, the potentially high costs of decommissioning and waste disposal mean that a key risk going forward is that nuclear power will become a relatively expensive and unsustainable technology relative to renewable energy alternatives.”

France seems ready to maintain a close relationship with nuclear power in the future, but its neighbor Germany is taking a different route.

In response to the Fukushima disaster of 2011, when a powerful earthquake and tsunami caused the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to collapse in Japan, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government developed plans to shut down the country’s nuclear plants by the end of 2022.

Last week, Reuters reported that Germany had agreed to pay four companies, Vattenfall, RWE, E.ON and EnBW, a total compensation of almost 2.6 billion euros (about $ 3.09 billion) for the early closure of its nuclear plants. .

Criticisms and concerns

While Macron appears to be backing nuclear power, it goes without saying that the technology is not favored by all.

Critics include Greenpeace. “Nuclear power is touted as a solution to our energy problems, but in reality it is complex and enormously expensive to build,” states the environmental organization’s website.

“It also creates huge amounts of hazardous waste,” he adds. “Renewable energy is cheaper and can be installed quickly. Along with battery storage, it can generate the power we need and reduce our emissions.”

The global picture

As governments around the world seek to move away from fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy sources, the debate over the role of nuclear energy in the planet’s energy mix will continue.

Last month, Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Bill Gates told CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin that nuclear power would be “absolutely” politically acceptable again. Gates is also the founder and president of TerraPower, a company focused on nuclear innovation.

So is the transition from fossil fuels to renewables possible without nuclear power?

“Any low-emission source, such as nuclear, of course, can play a role in the energy transition,” said Wood Mackenzie’s Osbaldstone, before moving on to outlining some of the challenges ahead.

“However, the costs of new nuclear construction are high, the technology requires strong political support and regulatory frameworks in host countries,” he added, explaining that the generators were “typically large and relatively inflexible in operation; these characteristics reduce the number of possible applications for nuclear energy.. “

New technology, including small modular reactors, or SMRs, “could help in some way address these shortcomings, potentially opening up a more important role for the source. But SMRs are still on the drawing board at this time.”


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