French Nuclear Energy

November 24, 2015

France generates approximately 407,438 gigawatts of electricity from nuclear power, a total amount second only to the United States in pure power generated. [1] However, France receives 74.8% of its electricity from nuclear power, making it the country that derives the highest percentage of its power from nuclear energy in the world.[2]  Nevertheless, France is currently facing the issue of whether or not to continue their heavy dependence on nuclear energy.

France decided to pursue a pro-nuclear power policy in 1974 in the wake of the first oil shock.[3]  The 1970’s oil shock hit France especially hard primarily because the country has few domestic natural energy resources such as coal, oil, and natural gas, and at the time most of France’s electricity needs were met by power plants that ran off imported oil.[4]  To increase the country’s energy independence, France pursued an aggressive plan to develop nuclear energy from 1975 to 1989 and now has 59 nuclear reactors in operation.[5]

This policy of pursuing large scale nuclear energy was initially met with some protest but the use of nuclear energy has become largely noncontroversial, as roughly two-thirds of French citizens now have a strongly positive view of nuclear energy.[6] Former Director for Energy and Raw Materials at the Ministry of Industry Claude Mandil linked France’s high public opinion of nuclear energy to three things. First, the French are highly independent and do not like the idea of relying on Middle Eastern oil to meet their energy needs. Second, the French are enthusiastic about large, centrally-planned technological projects such as the development of nuclear energy.[7] Finally, French authorities worked very hard to highlight the benefits of nuclear energy through media campaigns and nuclear facilities tours.[8]

The development of such a large nuclear power industry has lead to many benefits for France, including extremely low greenhouse gas emissions for a developed country. [9]  Additionally, France derives many economic benefits from its nuclear energy industry, employing around 200,000 people in France and resulting in some of the lowest energy prices for the public in all of Europe.[10]  France is also the world’s largest net electricity exporter, with electricity exports being France’s fourth largest export. [11]

Even with all the benefits that nuclear energy has provided France over the years, it appears that the use of nuclear power is on the downslope.  In October 2014, the French National Assembly approved the “Energy Transition for Green Growth” bill, which proposes cutting the share of energy produced by nuclear power to 50% by 2025 while increasing the share of energy produced from renewable sources.[12] This increase of reliance in renewable energy will result in the closure of 23-25 of France’s nuclear reactors by 2025.[13]

The direct cause of this proposed reduction in nuclear power is from President Francois Hollandé’s pledge during his 2012 presidential campaign to increase energy generated from renewables.[14]  But there are many more concrete economic and social reasons that have resulted in the possibility of reduction of nuclear energy.

First, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant disaster damaged public confidence in nuclear energy worldwide and placed attention on the need for greater safety mechanisms in nuclear plants, especially in the case of natural disasters.  As a result, safety upgrades of French nuclear reactors are expected to cost around 10 billion euros, which will in turn increase the cost of energy in France by roughly 30%.[15] In addition, France realized that Japan only survived the shutdown of all of its nuclear reactors after the disaster because of its diverse energy mix, something that France would be hard pressed to do as the country heavily depends on nuclear energy.[16]

So far, France has found shutting down nuclear reactors to be a challenge, and only one nuclear power plant has been earmarked for closure.[17]  Also, the question of what will replace nuclear energy if its usage is actually reduced still looms over the country.  Currently, France lags behind in the development of renewables, such as wind and solar, and would likely have to rely on conventional fossil fuels to meet its energy needs,[18] resulting in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, contrary to France’s policy of reducing its carbon footprint.[19]

France has many tough policy decisions to make in the coming years concerning nuclear energy and what can replace it. The development of the nuclear industry has contributed a great deal to the country both economically and environmentally, and any change may need to produce similar advantages to be successful.

 

[1] Harrison Jacobs, The 17 Countries that Generate the Most Nuclear Power, Business Insider (Mar. 6, 2014), http://www.businessinsider.com/countries-generating-the-most-nuclear-energy-2014-3?op=1.

[2] Id.

[3] Nuclear Power in France, World Nuclear Ass’n, Sept., 2015, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/France/.

[4]  Jake Richardson, Why France Went Nuclear, Clean Technica (Aug. 6, 2014), http://cleantechnica.com/2014/08/06/france-went-nuclear/

[5] Id.

[6] Jon Palfreman, Why the French Like Nuclear Energy, PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/reaction/readings/french.html.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Nuclear Power in France, World Nuclear Ass’n, Sept., 2015, http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/France/.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Geraldine Amiel, France to Dim Its Reliance on Nuclear Power, WSJ, (June 19, 2014), http://www.wsj.com/articles/france-to-dim-its-reliance-on-nuclear-power-1403113287.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15]  Bob Broomby, France Struggles to cut down on nuclear power, BBC (Jan. 11, 2014), http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25674581.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

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