France: A Study of French Nuclear Policy After Fukushima

July 17, 2012

France’s pro nuclear power stance

Brief History of Nuclear Power in France:

Nuclear research has been inextricably tied to France since Pierre and Marie Curie’s discovery of the radioactivity of radium. But nuclear research took on a larger role in France in 1945 when President Charles de Gaulle developed the Commissariat à l’Enérgie Atomic (CEA) and placed Frédéric Joliot-Curie at its head, reminding the French of the Curies’ advancements and the advancements that would continue to occur. France’s CEA had goal applications for nuclear in three fields: medicine, energy and defense. By 1946, France had established one main electricity company, Eléctricité de France, which has become the largest energy utility company in the world – using all non-fossil-fuel energy. In 1964, France’s first nuclear power plant opened. Since then, France has become a primarily nuclear-powered country with 78.8% of its electrical energy coming from nuclear. France has the largest percent of nuclear in total domestic electricity generation according to the International Energy Association and exports about 44.91 billion kWh of electrical energy per year. With 58 nuclear reactors, France has now depended on nuclear energy for many years without ever having a serious accident. France decidedly became the world’s leader in nuclear energy after the 1973 oil crisis. That year, France’s Prime Minister, Pierre Messmer, developed a plan to open 80 nuclear power plants by 1985 and 170 by 2000. Due to the “Messmer Plan”, France constructed a total of 56 new reactors between the years of 1974 and 1989. France has remained pro-nuclear ever since. In 1999, the French Parliament’s “three pillars” of energy policy were security of supply, respect for the environment (lowering greenhouse gas emissions), and dedication to properly managing radioactive waste.

Commissariat à l’Enérgie Atomic (CEA) Headquarters
Commissariat à l’Enérgie Atomic (CEA) Headquarters

Influence of Fukushima-Daiichi on France:

On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant became notorious when one of its reactors exploded after an earthquake and tsunami. The Japanese questioned their government’s decisions in favor of nuclear after being evacuated from their homes and checked for radiation. But the radioactive materials that were released into the air also caused stress all across the world. For France, the first concern was radioactive fallout and the contamination of food products. All of Europe began checking crops for radiation, just as they did in 1986 after the Chernobyl accident. But France was also in a unique situation. With most of its electrical power coming from nuclear, France had to calm the newfound fears of French people who now questioned the safety of their own country’s nuclear program. With Germany vowing to shutdown nuclear reactors just next door, and Italy already in the process of stopping their nuclear plants, France was in a tight place – it had more to lose from a total shutdown of nuclear than any nuclear disaster. But France’s President, Nicolas Sarkozy, was not influenced by his neighbors. Despite the sudden apprehension of the world towards nuclear and vast protests in many countries against nuclear and the uncertainty behind waste disposal, France stood by nuclear power firmly. However, by November 2011, the socialist candidate François Hollande was vowing to close 20 nuclear reactors in France and to seriously limit France’s dependence on nuclear.

Areva Nuclear Center
Areva Nuclear Center

But Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration had a point. France could not afford to lose thousands of jobs by closing down nuclear power plants. And with three strong government-funded organizations attached to nuclear power in France: CEA, AREVA and EDF, researchers were already ahead of the game. In the time after Fukushima, France’s plants were being secured for safety with the perfection of stress tests and the analysis of emergency procedure.

Since Francois Hollande’s election in 2012, he has proposed action based on his views toward nuclear power. Hollande has declared that he wants France’s nuclear output to decrease by a third by the year 2025, in a situation called “la transition energetique.” To meet this goal, France must reduce the number of nuclear power stations from their current 58 to only 38.

Whereas France relies on 78.8% of their energy from nuclear, Japan only relied on nuclear for 30% of their energy.

Though promising, there are many doubts surrounding whether France has the capabilities or follow through with such a pledge. France’s dependence on nuclear power plants places it in a vulnerable position. Not only do they rely primarily on one form of energy, but they also rely on one generation of nuclear reactors. This results in France being prone to a “generic risk”, where if one reactor had a problem, all reactors would have to go offline in order to fix the problem. Japan was able to shut down all of their nuclear reactors after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster; however, France does not have the benefits that Japan did in order to issue such a shutdown. Whereas France relies on 78.8% of their energy from nuclear, Japan only relied on nuclear for 30% of their energy. As France siphoned off their nuclear reactors, they would have to increase the amount they use of renewable energy sources. In a bill presented in 2014, the government plans to increase the reliance on renewables from 15% to 32%. This would maintain their energy independence, one of the main goals for the start of their nuclear energy program, and, over the next three years, create around 100,000 jobs.

Francois Hollande
Francois Hollande

Despite Hollande’s plans to overhaul France’s nuclear energy sector, only one reactor has been designated for shutdown, the Fessenheim reactor on the German border of France. Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg has said that the Fessenheim reactor will be the only reactor to close and that France will receive at least 50% of their energy from nuclear. A former board member of AREVA who now heads the energy division of IFRI, Cecile Masonneuve, believes the government’s transition from nuclear energy is “too fast and for the moment…not credible.” The transition to nuclear energy could cause France to slip back to using gas or coal, two resources which they have very limited supplies of and which would increase their CO2 emissions. Nuclear energy’s ability to cut down on CO2 emissions is a leading argument of environmentalists for the use of nuclear energy.

With Francois Hollande’s pledge of limiting nuclear, but with questionable follow through, it is difficult to predict what the future of nuclear power in France will be. It is important to point out that members of the socialist party in France have before supported the country’s nuclear industry simply due to economics and jobs. So far, France is something of a success story for the nuclear industry. They have low carbon emissions and cheap electricity, in addition to being a developed nation with a high quality of life. On the other hand, even if France does not go through with its plan to reduce reliance on nuclear, major investment in energy infrastructure will be needed. One in three of France’s nuclear reactors is 40 or more years old and is in need of costly upgrades. The safety upgrades alone, due to Fukushima, cost around 13.2 billion dollars. With bordering countries (such as Germany, Switzerland, and Italy) phasing out nuclear in favor of combinations of coal and renewables, in addition to the law within France which allows only the owner of a nuclear plant or a safety agency to close a reactor, it’s hard to tell whether or not nuclear will continue to reign in France.


Related Media:


Further Reading:

  • Frontline on why the French like nuclear power.



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