France is at an energy crossroads. To meet future electricity needs, the country could extend the operating lives of nuclear power plants beyond 40 years, accepting the safety challenges and costs of such a move, or it could change its energy mix, moving away from nuclear power and toward energy-efficiency measures and other energy sources.
Until recently, the French government had refused even to examine the possibility of reducing the country’s reliance on nuclear power. But a study by independent French experts suggests that staying the nuclear course would be more expensive and less environmentally beneficial than authorities make it out to be. The difficult financial situation of two state-controlled firms involved in nuclear energy, EDF and Areva SA, will seriously affect the government’s operating margins. Those financial difficulties, the aging reactor fleet, and public opinion—which is largely in favor of a nuclear phase-out—will force the government to make fundamental choices in the near future about its energy strategy.
From the 1960s until the 2012 presidential elections, the French government had overwhelmingly and unwaveringly supported the nuclear power industry, not even budging after the Fukushima catastrophe. When the nuclear path is questioned, French political leaders and nuclear industry representatives frequently respond by pointing to the country’s inexpensive electricity and relatively low greenhouse gas emissions. Any suggestion that nuclear power’s share of the national energy mix might be lowered or phased out altogether tends to be met with dire predictions of environmental and economic disaster.
For example, in its 2012 annual reference document, Électricité de France SA (EDF), the Paris-based, state-controlled firm that operates power-generating reactors, stated that a reduction from 75 percent to 50 percent in nuclear energy’s share of electricity production by 2030 would raise electricity prices by 75 percent, increase greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent, and force a “substantial” increase in fossil fuel imports (EDF Group, 2012). A full nuclear exit by 2030, EDF warned, would double electricity prices and increase greenhouse gas emissions fivefold.
These warnings, however, are largely based on unlikely—perhaps even unreasonable—energy scenarios and ignore the increasingly poor financial situations of EDF and Areva SA, the state-controlled firm that builds nuclear plants and provides a full range of fuel services. The warnings also do not account for another important fact: By 2020, 22 of France’s 58 nuclear power reactors will have operated for 40 years. The French Court of Accounts, an independent agency tasked with examining public spending, calculates that, if these plants are retired, the country will have to build at least 11 new, third-generation nuclear plants by 2020 to maintain the current nuclear-generation level—a target industrially impossible to achieve.
France stands at an energy crossroads. It can extend the operating lives of nuclear power plants beyond 40 years, accepting the safety challenges and costs such a move mandates, or it can change its energy mix, moving away from nuclear and toward energy-efficiency measures and other energy sources. Not until last year’s presidential election had the government even examined the possibility of reducing the country’s reliance on nuclear power. But a study by independent French experts suggests that staying the nuclear course would be more expensive and less environmentally beneficial than authorities make it out to be.