France prepares for nuclear renaissance

In a further indication of Europe’s determination to pivot away from dependence on imported gas, France has laid the groundwork for a major new investment in nuclear energy.

At present some 70% of the country’s energy needs come from nuclear power as a result of a major policy shift made in the 1970s, in the wake of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the global oil crisis. Now it appears that a new geopolitical crisis, namely Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is set to spark a major new wave of nuclear investment.

The investment is much needed given that many of France’s reactors are considerably ageing and the maintenance bill for them is growing.

To address the issue, the Nuclear Policy Council (Conseil de Politique Nucléaire, CPN), headed by President Emmanuel Macron, met last week to “take stock of the entire French nuclear dossier, both in the short and long-term”. 

The council has called for a new skills development programme, as well as studies into how radioactive waste will be managed, in order for a nuclear new-build programme to be launched.

“The decisions taken during this Nuclear Policy Council will make it possible to prepare the next multi-annual energy programme, which will be presented in June 2023, before a debate in Parliament on the energy and climate programming law,” a presidential statement said.

In order to ensure the security of French electricity supply, and after a historically low level of production of the country’s power reactors over the past two years, the CPN has launched the “remobilisation of all players to prepare for winter 2023 by anticipating at best scheduled reactor outages”.

The statement added: “With a view to producing carbon-free and competitive electricity over the long term, the CPN has also validated the launch of studies to prepare for the extension of the life of existing power plants to 60 years and beyond, under strict conditions of safety guaranteed by the Nuclear Safety Authority.”

France’s multi-year energy plan – the Programmation Pluriannuelle de l’Energie (PPE) – is a roadmap for the periods 2019-2023 and 2024-2028, setting out the country’s main energy priorities and thereby guiding public and private investment. 

Once finalised, the PPE will determine how many reactors should be shut down and how many new ones should be constructed.

In February last year, President Macron announced that the time was right for a nuclear renaissance in France, saying the operation of all existing reactors should be extended without compromising safety and unveiling a proposed programme for six new EPR2 reactors, with an option for a further eight EPR2 reactors to follow.

Last month, the French Senate overwhelmingly approved a draft bill aimed at accelerating procedures related to the construction of new nuclear facilities near existing nuclear sites and to the operation of existing facilities. 

The bill will be voted on by the National Assembly in March.