France on pro-nuclear course

The nuclear industry is “lucky for the country,” said Macron on Tuesday in his speech to companies and students in the Elysee Palace. It enables France to “count among the European countries that emit the least CO2 in electricity production”.

But not only the climate aspect, but also the independence of gas or coal from other countries are always a weighty argument in the French nuclear power debate. Proponents always refer to the low electricity prices in European comparison – especially in view of the current price development.

Enthusiasm for nuclear power reduction is waning

France is an atomic energy country – around 70 percent of the electricity it produces comes from nuclear power plants. At the same time, there are the same concerns there as in the rest of the world. France has therefore actually committed itself to reducing the proportion of nuclear power from around 70 to 50 percent by 2035, to shut down a dozen old reactors and at the same time to expand renewable energies.

Reuters / Arnd Wiegmann

The Fessenheim nuclear power plant, France’s oldest nuclear power plant

But the enthusiasm for this nuclear phase-out seems to be visibly waning. In the course of the climate debate, France is currently trying, against the will of other countries, to have nuclear power recognized by the EU as a “green investment” and thus be able to mobilize funds. Nuclear power is needed to achieve the energy transition, so the core argument.

Hydro-fuel expansion with nuclear energy

Macron now seems to want to pursue a dual strategy that is intended to accommodate both opponents and supporters of nuclear power. The billion is part of a 30 billion euro investment package to expand industry, which is intended to enable a long-term strategy. Electricity production and the expansion of nuclear power are supposed to boost the production of green hydrogen, according to Macron.

French President Emmanuel Macron

Reuters / Ludovic Marin

Macron presented a new investment program for the industry on Tuesday

France must also invest in energy-intensive industries such as steel, cement and chemicals in order to reduce climate-damaging emissions there. Two million electric and hybrid cars are also expected to be produced in France by 2030. “The goal can be achieved if the major manufacturers work together,” said Macron. “We want to rediscover a positive cycle: renew, manufacture, export and thus finance our social model,” said the President.

Positive election campaign topic

Dealing with nuclear power has become a central issue in the election campaign for the presidential election in spring 2022 in recent months. Several parties have clearly positioned themselves as advocates of nuclear energy: the conservative candidate Xavier Bertrand wants to have at least three new power plants built, while Marine Le Pen from the right-wing Rassemblement National wants six. The author Eric Zemmour, who is traded as a candidate and who is located on the right, wants to build ten.

The Social Democratic candidate and mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, also spoke out in favor of an “energy mix with nuclear power”. Even the Greens are now verbally pushing the nuclear phase-out, which used to be vehemently demanded, into the future. “Nobody says that we will shut down the nuclear power plants tomorrow,” said the green presidential candidate Yannick Jadot. He reckons with 20 years until the exit. “And if it’s five years more, then that’s the way it is.”

Macron himself has not yet publicly announced his candidacy. With the plan, which will run until 2030, Macron is aiming well beyond his first term in office, which is why the French media are including him in the upcoming election campaign. The conservative candidate Bertrand accused Macron of “campaigning with the checkbook”. Critics of the nuclear strategy also emphasized that the focus on nuclear energy would hinder the expansion of other renewable forms of energy such as hydro or wind power.

Problems with EPR power plant

The candidates in France want to rely primarily on the European pressurized water reactor (EPR). However, only one such reactor is currently being built in the country with the Flamanville nuclear power plant, and with considerable difficulties: It will go online in 2023 at the earliest – eleven years later and almost four times as expensive as planned. A final decision has not yet been made on a planned final storage facility for nuclear waste in Bure, Lorraine.

Macron has now said that it intends to build increasingly small, innovative nuclear power plants (Small Modular Reactors, SMR). However, these are currently not ready for production. A single model is currently running in Russia. The French nuclear industry has little interest in the small reactors because they produce relatively little electricity and thus cannot replace conventional nuclear power plants.

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