President Emmanuel Macron of France is walking a tightrope. He wants to “Make Our Planet Great Again” and imposed a fuel-tax hike. But protests against the tax that spiralled into a debate about the cost of living have left him struggling with his energy policy, and what to do with the nation’s ageing nuclear reactor fleet. Dan Yurman separates the nuclear promises from the reality.
At the end of 2018 French President Emmanuel Macron announced a plan to execute a “cautious reduction” of its nuclear energy generation. Macron said France would cap the amount of electricity it derives from nuclear plants at 50% by 2035, which is a delay compared with the goal of 2025 set by his predecessor Francois Hollande. But France will not phase out nuclear entirely, as its neighbours Germany and Belgium are planning to do. In fact, despite the promises of Green Party politicians for a more aggressive schedule, only the Fessenheim nuclear station, built in 1978, is actually scheduled to close by 2020.
Macron said France will shut down 14 commercial nuclear reactors by 2035 out of 58, all operated by state-controlled utility EDF. This includes “four to six” before 2030, two in 2027-28 and possibly two in 2025-26, provided this does not jeopardise the security of power supply. However, Macron’s plan is less aggressive than what would be needed if it set a deadline for closing plants at the 40 year mark. Here’s a scorecard:
- 32 reactors with power ratings on average of 900 MW reach the 40 year mark in a narrow range of 2023-2028.
- 20 reactors with power rating on average of 1300 MW reach the 40 year mark in a 10 year range of 2029-2040.
- 2 reactors with power ratings of 1450 MW reach the 40 year mark in 2040.
Nuclear Power Plants in France. Table: World Nuclear Association
Nuclear plant lifetimes could be extended
Nearly half of all the electrical power generated by nuclear plants in France, 27 GWe, comes from plants that hit the 40 year mark in a narrow five year window of 2023-2028. If the reactor plant life extension measures can be taken, the plants could get 20 year license renewals that would take them into the mid-2040s.
Similarly, the other half, more or less, of the French nuclear fleet hits the 40 year mark in the 10 year period starting in 2029. If the reactor plant life extension measures can be taken, the plans could get 20 year license renewals that would take them into the 2050s.
Decision on new plants delayed to after 2021
The president said nuclear would remain a key element in national power supply. He kicked the decision on building new nuclear reactors into the future after 2021. A likely scenario is that new reactors would be based on Areva’s 1650 MW EPR design or possibly an 1100 MW design developed jointly by Areva (rebranded as Orano in January 2018) and Mistubishi which is a scaled down version of the EPR.
France has made only tentative plans to invest in the development of small modular reactors (SMRs). According to a global review of SMRs by the World Nuclear Association in November 2018, France has developed the NP-300 PWR design from submarine power plants and aimed it at export markets for power, heat and desalination. It has passive safety systems and could be built for applications of 100 to 300 MWe or more with up to 500,000 m3/day desalination. The profile does not mention its use for domestic markets or applications.
The future of EDF is under discussion
A press release from the Ministry for an Ecological and Solidarity Transition said: “The government will maintain a dialogue with EDF in order to plan this decrease [in nuclear capacity] and designate sites on which the closures will be made.”
It says closures should take place primarily at the sites housing the country’s oldest reactors: Blayais, Bugey, Chinon, Cruas, Dampierre, Gravelines, Saint-Laurent and Tricastin. However, it will be up to EDF to specify which reactors will be closed. All of these older units are in the range of 900 MW. “The final confirmation of the reactors to be shut down will take place at least three years before the date of effective closure of the chosen reactors,” the ministry said.
The French government could boost its stake in EDF
Reuters reported that Macron did not mention a possible EDF restructuring but a separate statement from the government said the state could raise its 83.7% stake. “The state will consider boosting its stake in the capital of the company in line with the challenges and risks linked to the nuclear activity,” the note said.
Ecology Minister Francois de Rugy told a news conference that EDF’s structure was not necessarily the most efficient in the long run. “We want EDF to remain an integrated group. There could be a parent company and subsidiaries,” he said. Reuters reported that financial markets have long speculated that EDF’s nuclear activities could be put into a separate legal structure and nationalised, which would allow the state to subsidise the business.
Nuclear policy will impact Orano by the mid-2020s
Decisions announced by Macron regarding the shutdown of nuclear power reactors will have no short-term consequences for Orano’s plants in France, although they may have an impact “towards the middle of the next decade”, the company said in a statement. Orano, formerly Areva, said France has confirmed its commitment to treatment and recycling for the management of spent nuclear fuel. The company said it will implement measures to limit the impact of any shutdowns and would pursue investments in its facilities.
The company has two main facilities at La Hague in northern France and the Melox plant in southern France. La Hague carries out the first stage of recycling used fuel from nuclear reactors. The Melox site manufactures mixed oxide fuel assemblies designed to supply light-water reactors.
France will still need new reactors
In a nod to the reality that France is going to need new reactors, the government said further that it wants to maintain the option for possible future new reactors. Macron said he has requested state-owned EDF to “work on the development of a new nuclear program.”
The government will lead a work program with EDF on the industrial capacity issues of the nuclear industry, “economic optimisation” of the EPR reactor design, storage of waste from a new reactor fleet, financing models, as well as regulatory and legal procedures. A decision to proceed with nuclear new build will also take place in 2021.
Macron wants France to remain committed to EPR technology
The EPR nuclear power unit must be part of a package of technological options for tomorrow and France must maintain an industrial capacity to build new reactors, Macron said in his speech on the country’s energy program. He said France needed its EPR technology “for sovereignty issues” and said the government and state-controlled utility EDF will work together on “the issues of industrial capacity” of the [nuclear] sector and “the economic optimisation of a new reactor model”.
The French nuclear society SFEN told NucNet that if France – which has the world’s highest share of nuclear in its electricity mix – built 14 new EPR units it could cut costs and reduce construction times by up to 30%, benefitting from savings that can be made from building a series of identical or similar plants.
EDF’s aim is to reduce the costs of building new EPR units to between €60 and €70/MWh
According to SFEN, EDF has said its aim is to reduce the costs of building new EPR units to between €60 and €70 per MWh. The cost of the Flamanville-3 plant under construction in northern France has been put at between $93 and $106 per MWh, about the same as gas or coal-powered plants but cheaper than onshore wind farms.
France must now ramp up renewable and gas, and its grid
The problem for France, which Macron has not addressed, is how it will replace its fleet with a combination of nuclear, gas, and renewables, and how it will upgrade its grid to accommodate the new mix of power sources. France produces more nuclear energy than any other country, getting about 71% of its electricity from its fleet of reactors at 19 nuclear stations. Regarding jobs, nuclear energy is the third largest industrial sector in France and employs more than 220,000 people, according to Orano’s figures.
Dan Yurman is the author of Neutron Bytes and writes on nuclear matters. This article appears with his permission.
See Dan’s previous post Nuclear activity: UK, Russia, Japan, China and US all increasing capacity