The History of the French Nuclear Program

Modern world and its high level of technological development demand different states to develop nuclear potential. All people know which health consequences nuclear radiation can lead to and how dangerous this type of weapon is. However, nuclear energy has some important advantages when used with peaceful purposes, namely providing people with electricity. The price of an issue and the image of a nuclear state is a separate question. The current paper discusses the nuclear potential of France and strives to prove that the international community and the current president of the country are right in stimulating France to decrease the number of reactors and produce cleaner and greener energy.

The development of nuclear potential of any state is subject to a vast national and international discussion. In order to understand at what level France is now, it is important to know the historical background of the French nuclear power generation. “The origins of French nuclear energy policy stem from the first oil shock of 1973” (The Nuclear Threat, 2016, para. 15). It was an event, when the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) proclaimed oil embargo. The French government decided to quickly expand the state’s nuclear energy sector and to reduce dependence on the imported fossil fuels (The Nuclear Threat, 2016). Schneider (2008) writes that France became a role model for the USA in terms of developing nuclear potential. The rating of top 10 nuclear generating countries demonstrates that France occupies the second position after the USA, producing 418 billion kWh, while the USA generates 798.6 billion kWh (Top 10, 2014).

The French program was so successful that in 2007 the nuclear power was providing 77% of electricity in the state and 47% of electricity in the European Union (EU) (Schneider, 2008). The specific legislation, regulating the activities of France in the sphere of nuclear agency, was adopted in 2006. It is worth mentioning that the elected governmental representatives have very little influence on designing and implementing any nuclear development policies. The body, which has a complete control over the issue is Corps de Mines, consisting of elite technocrats and being officially administered by the General Mining Council. The influential Cops de Mines greatly contributed to developing the nuclear power of France and establishing long-term programs (Schneider, 2008).

France has always considered the administration of its nuclear power to be a very important point of the national policy and has always treated the usage of nuclear energy for civil and military purposes as one of the governmental directions. The international nuclear safeguards are valid for France and represent “a delicate compromise between defense needs and peaceful end-use obligations.” (Schneider, 2008, p. 9). Alongside with the nuclear programs, France started developing plans as to utilization of plutonium fuel for reactor, the energy of which was planned to be used for different civilian purposes. Though the general direction of the French nuclear program seems to be chosen correctly, certain problems started in the 1980s, when “it became clear that the dimension of the nuclear generating capacity had been vastly oversized.” (Schneider, 2008, p. 11). Instead of reducing the number of its nuclear plants, the state developed a very aggressive two direction policy aimed at long term power export contracts and dumping of electricity in the competitive markets, including space and water heating. As a result, France turned into the largest net power exporter in Europe, which was not economically beneficial (Schneider, 2008).

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The French energy exports performed from 1995 to 2001 were considered the major economic losses for France by the scholars. France has relatively high level of electricity consumption. However, the average level of it depends on whether a household is equipped with electric space and water heating. As a result, in case of France, cheap electricity does not mean low energy bills, while high energy bills influence the poor citizens more significantly than the rich ones. The statistical data confirms that the heating provided by the state in winter is insufficient for 3 million of French. The demand to involve different social organizations to help pay the electricity bills grows each year (Schneider, 2008). Moreover, regarding the industrial sector of French economy, some officials and economists expressed a point of view that the low prices of nuclear-generated electricity made the sector highly competitive. However, such statement can be argued as the French foreign trade deficit continuously grows and the electricity consumption by the industrial sector gradually reduces. A final remark to the aforementioned facts is that France has recently been the only state, which closed its nuclear units for summer weekends due to the lack of demand. The French population does not support the idea of building more nuclear plants (Schneider, 2008).

Schneider (2008) states that the French nuclear program is an example of outstanding implementation of scientific, engineering, and technological decisions. As it was mentioned above, the influential French technocrats promoted the implementations of this program. As a result, the lack of some democratic governmental control caused the enumerated problems. The costs of nuclear power were generated on the basis of military nuclear programs, as the civil sector is greatly depended on them. The access to the information on nuclear issues was restricted. The plutonium industry in France is a great example of civilian-military interaction, which is not capable of adapting to the needs of the modern society. The international agreements, signed by France were designed in a way, which left too much freedom for the state to use its nuclear reactors at its own discretion. Finally, three quarters of public research funds were spent on investigation nuclear fission, but there are no significant changes in the given aspect till now. More arguments enumerated by Schneider (2008) to prove that the French nuclear program did not prove itself include:

  • There is no factual connection between oil and nuclear power, as the nuclear power generation comprises only 12% of the oil consumption in France.
  • Three quarters of the final energy consumed by France is produced from fossil fuels.
  • The official “energy independence” level of 50% for France is only approximate. The real value is not more than 22%.
  • Nuclear reactors played an important role in artificial elevation of electricity consumption level and did not substituted the major part of the energy resources.
  • The massive implementation of electric space heating led to exploding peak load, which caused an uneconomic power consumption model. It is significant to remember that electricity is a very polluted form of heat that provokes higher greenhouse gas emissions compared to gas or oil.
  • Since 1990 the level of the greenhouse gas emissions in France remains almost the same.

Therefore, for an accurate analysis of the French nuclear program, it is important to investigate its weak and string points.

The Failure of the French Nuclear Program: It is Time for Great Changes

There are many journalists and energy experts, who are researching the problem of French nuclear potential and who consider France and nuclear power to be almost synonymous terms (Mariotte, 2015). “With 78% of its electricity generated by the atom, it is the most nuclear-dependent country in the world.” (Mariotte, 2015, para. 3). However, Mariotte (2015) supports the opinion of Schneider (2008) stating that France has been in a speedy nuclear decline for already more than 5 years. The author is sure that nowadays the world is heading to nuclear-free and carbon-free energy systems. Moreover, he strives to clarify the situation of how the French nuclear energy sector has decreased in the recent years. Mariotte (2015) offers to analyze the indices of the EDF (Électricité de France) and Areva (the most powerful French manufacturer of nuclear reactors). “Since 2007, EDF’s stock price has fallen more than by 70%, while Areva’s by more than 85%.” (Mariotte, 2015, para. 5). Consequently, at present, Areva is close to bankruptcy. The EPR reactor, which is now being constructed by the company, is larger than any other plant, but there are only few customers who can possibly use its potential. In addition, the overall cost of the works is comparatively high. Moreover, after the events with Fukushima, many states have stopped relying on nuclear power. The EDF cannot sell the volume of electricity that will cover the costs on the production of electric power by the aging French reactors (Mariotte, 2015). The situation with over-production definitely needs some urgent solution.

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It is important to note that the French officials have treated the Fukushima events seriously. They see the necessity to upgrade the existing reactors and remember about the fact that the license term of the reactors is expiring. The average expenses on keeping the existing reactors functioning are approximately $10 billion (Mariotte, 2015). The quickest and most reasonable solution, which the French governments can make, is the EDF buying Areva and assuming the responsibility for its nuclear reactors. Recently, Areva has “reported that an “anomaly” was recently found in the upper and lower heads of the EPR pressure vessel for France’s Flamanville reactor now under construction by EDF.” (Mariotte, 2015, para.). It is not so easy to take a decision about repairs in such case. More tests confirmed that the fabrication of the vessels’ upper and lower heads was performed with defects. It is possible to replace the upper head as there is an access to it. However, the lower head is welded to the bottom and the works to substitute it will cost as much as the replacement of the entire vessel. Both Areva and the EDF will try to convince the French government to license the vessel, regardless of all the problems. If the government refuses to do it, the Flamanville project will be definitely stopped.

Mariotte (2015) states that the issue that remains unnoticed is that France is beginning its projects of energy transition and does it as aggressively as Germany. Such transition started when Francois Hollande was elected the President of France in 2012 and announced a necessity to reduce the French reliance on nuclear power by 50% by 2025. It means that France will have to close the same number of reactors as Germany, reducing its nuclear production from 19% to zero. The main idea of the President is that France will substitute these reactors with clean energy, not using more fossil fuels (Mariotte, 2015).

The Steps Made towards Renewables and a Public Discussion

France has already made some important steps to follow the President’s program. It is guided by the European Union’s directive to generate 20% of the electricity from renewables by 2020 (Irfan, 2015). Producing of solar and wind power is occurring not very effectively in the state compared to the nuclear plants with base loading, which work at full extent. The French energy agency ADME has recently issued a report that it is possible for France to start using 100% of renewable energy by the middle of the decade. It also confirmed that nuclear business will greatly suffer in such case. At the same time, low prices on fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, diminish the inspiration of French political leaders to completely switch to renewables. Current attention to climate changes and negative effects of the greenhouse gases are the factors, which should be paid close attention to not only by France, but all other countries in terms of developing their nuclear programs (Irfan, 2015).

President Hollande expressed a point of view that it was time for France to stop being dependent on oil and nuclear power. Nuclear energy generation was considered as an alternative to dependency on oil, but nowadays the connection of these two sectors is not proved. The difference between the situation in France and Germany is the fact that in France, there has always existed public and trade union support of nuclear energy generation. Therefore, the French government did not simply defined the goals to reduce the volume of nuclear production, but aroused national debates attracting energy experts, unions, and officials. The general idea of the public is to develop a nuclear policy, which will be effective and will address the climate crisis. The community believes that the French government should start a more active advertising campaign and provide the vast public involvement in the issue. However, Mariotte (2015) comments that the USA does not understand how is it possible to initiate a discussion about nuclear policy and try to involve the public in it. The USA citizens want to have cleaner, greener, and safer energy compared to the one generated by oil and nuclear power and suppose that all nations want to reach the same goal for their states. Besides reducing the French reliance on nuclear power by the mentioned amount, fossil fuels are planned to be be reduced by 30% by 2030 and renewables would be increased by 32%. The overall energy use will drop by 20% and reach the level of 50% by 2050. In order to start implementing these policies, France should start closing its two old reactors and issue some legally enforceable regulations to start additional shutdowns (Mariotte, 2015).

Decommissioning of the Reactors and a Possibility of a Quick Transition

The process of decommissioning of the old reactors is as important as the construction of the new plants. The international community expressed its concerns as to the fact that France does not have enough money to decommission its reactors. The state has a sum of €23billion to cover the costs (Williams, 2016). However, Williams (2016) states that “The €23billion — much of it invested in equities and bonds — has been set aside to cover what EDF estimates will be the €54billion cost of decommissioning the 58 nuclear reactors and safely storing their radioactive waste.” (para. 3). Therefore, besides the mentioned €23 billion for dismantling the power stations, the country also needs €26 billion for managing the used fuel (Williams, 2016). The European Commission does not consider it appropriate to compare the estimates of decommissioning for different countries as they all use different nuclear technologies. France should independently care for the process of closing its nuclear reactors and the Prime Minister of the country states that they have a full control of the process and enough means to perform it. However, some French energy experts express an opinion that the EDF largely underestimates the process of decommissioning of its reactors (Williams, 2016).

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Bloomby (2014) focuses the readers’ attention on the fact that the Fukushima disaster forced many countries to rethink their nuclear policy with France being one of them. The complete implementation of Hollande’s program will lead to closing 20 out of 58 nuclear reactors in France. Due to all the difficulties involved in nuclear power production, such step is called “logic evolution” (Bloomby, 2014, para. 2) by the energy experts. Bloomby (2014) states that France realized that the economic survival of Japan after the Fukushima events was provided by the variety of energy production methods, which Japan possesses. Therefore, France made a conclusion that “20 reactors closed in the “transition” could be replaced by renewable energy, which she says would maintain French energy independence and be both “stable and secure.” (Bloomby, 2014, para. 5). Bloomby (2014) reminds the readers about the fact that by the year 2022 one in three French reactors will be in operation for more than 40 years. The EDF has some plans to expand the life of reactors from 40 to 60 years, but these procedures are very expensive. Independent energy analysts state that renewable energy sources, which are the future of the energy generation, can become more competitive than nuclear reactors in less than 5 years (Bloomby, 2014). They believe that quick and absolutely safe transition is not possible for France. The state will have to return to using gas or even coal for some period of time with the logic increase in CO2 emissions. The international community thinks that France will have to develop new technologies, based on solar, biomass, and wind in order not to fall behind other states, which are actively using them. France should think more about the future and how competitive it will be in the market of enumerated innovative technologies (Bloomby, 2014).

Economic Potential of Substituting Nuclear by Renewables

Riesz, Sotiriadis, Vithayasrichareon, & Gilmore (2016) have performed an important research on the potential economic benefits of the transition from the nuclear energy to renewables. The authors state that “nuclear and renewables both offer the potential for low greenhouse emissions electricity production, but their potential contributions remain unclear.” (Rietsz et al., 2016, para. 1). Rietsz et al. (2016) name the French nuclear policy the most successful in the world and attribute its success to a number of factors: (1) a single institutional setting, which assigns a limited number of entities to make all decisions related to nuclear policy; (2) stability of the established nuclear regulations; (3) powerful engineering technologies of the EDF, which allowed simultaneous nuclear reactors construction; (4) the strongest efforts to standardize the design of the reactors. Therefore, similarly to Schneider (2008), Riesz et al. (2016) recognize the superiority of the French nuclear program over the nuclear plans of other states. However, their calculations force the scholars to make a conclusion that when “the substantial cost risk of generation III nuclear power is taken into account, it is unlikely to be economically competitive.” (Riesz et al., 2016, p. 26). Such statement is not completely valid for all the countries, but it is definitely partially correct for all states.

Emerging nuclear technologies, namely molten salt reactors, possess some economic potential, but they are usually not taking into account compared to the renewables as they are at a very early age of development (Riesz et al., 2016). Rietsz et al. (2016) are sure that though wind, solar energy, and other possible substitutes of the nuclear power production lead to certain integration challenges, these technologies may be more cost effective in creating electricity systems with low emissions level. The authors suggest targeting the policies and mechanisms of achieving low emissions in the process of electricity generation for overcoming the difficulties related to integrating renewable technologies into the energy sector of the countries, and stopping the development of nuclear power. The future research should compare the potential of the nuclear energy and renewables from the point of view of the risk costs and the integration costs. Therefore, Riesz et al. (2016) also support the plans of the French President and offer the country to follow the direction of substituting the majority of its nuclear reactors by the sources of renewable energy.

As it was mentioned above, the notion of nuclear power has always been connected with France. However, Irfan (2015) stresses that France has to recognize the fact that the country now is losing its know-how nuclear technologies, which are the benefits of the French nuclear power enumerated by Riesz (2016). The author states that though France is the world leader of the low-emissions nuclear energy production, it may soon change its status as more new technologies are developed and the risks are very high. It is interesting that when France was hosting the Global Climate Conference in 2015, it confirmed that the state started losing its positions in terms of the connection of its nuclear level energy production and the lowest level of emissions.

Irfan (2015) confirms that “Nuclear power was sort of proof of the greatness of France.” (para. 16). Since France tested its nuclear weapon in 1960, the efforts of the civilian and military nuclear sector were joined with the common aim of developing the nuclear energy production. The author notes that the most innovative idea of France and its greatest experiment with the nuclear power generation was to settle its own design of the reactors based on the American reactor and then rapidly construct more reactors throughout the state. The result is the cheapest electricity in the European Union and favorable safety records. Irfan (2015) confirms that as for now the nuclear sector in France employs 220,000 people and generates 2 percent of France gross domestic product. Therefore, the sector is vitally important for the country.

Nuclear Waste Management

The problems related to the cost of the construction and repairs of nuclear reactors are increased by the fact that though France managed to reduce its nuclear waste, just like all other countries, its government is not sure how to neutralize it. Irfan (2015) stresses that “No country with nuclear power has a viable underground repository for waste, and proposed sites in France face public opposition.” (para.23). The World Nuclear Association (2015) is engaged in solving the issues related to nuclear waste disposal and states that “Nuclear wastes are neither particularly hazardous nor hard to manage relative to other toxic industrial wastes.” (para. 1). High-level waste from nuclear production must be solidified. Nowadays, France has two special plans to treat this type of waste. The government of the country has designed a policy of reprocessing the nuclear waste and made certain steps. First of all, it has built underground rock laboratories in clay and granite. Later, the state has received the parliamentary confirmation of deep geological disposal. “France licensed a pure clay deposit and plans to use it until 2015.” (The World Nuclear Association, 2015). Therefore, it is possible to confirm that France develops effective nuclear waste management programs and tries to follow them regardless of the existing difficulties.

Conclusion and Recommendations

To conclude, it is important to note that the nuclear power sector of France is really worth special attention. It is not a surprise that the governmental policies and the activities of the EDF have been successful as they gave the state a possibility to feel that nuclear power is a symbol and revelation of the state. However, all the recent international tendencies of substituting the nuclear plants by the sources of the renewable energy and the current nuclear catastrophes in Japan put the nuclear energy production at great risk. France will most probably refuse from having a large quantity of nuclear reactors and will reach the aim of reducing nuclear energy generation. Nevertheless, this process will require great efforts, much time, and money, though bringing positive result.

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