The future of nuclear: France’s nuclear dreams or nightmares?

The Macron Government has laid out ambitious plans for its capricious nuclear sector, but such optimism should not blind us to potential challenges.

Alfie Shaw February 05 2024

At last year’s COP28 climate conference in Dubai, French President Emmanuel Macron triumphantly declared that “nuclear energy is back”.  His celebratory remark was uttered after France led a group of 20 countries in signing a pledge to “triple nuclear energy capacity from 2020 by 2050”.

Since the summit, a range of announcements and promises have been made that appear to support France’s ‘nuclear renaissance’. In November, the European Parliament backed the development of small modular reactors (SMRs), a versatile technology that many consider to be the future of the industry. Two months later, Energy Transition Minister Agnes Pannier- Runacher said that France will need to build 14 new nuclear power plants rather than the six currently planned if the country is to meet its energy transition goals.

Is all this optimism warranted? France has long been a nuclear superpower but lost its position as the world’s second-largest producer of nuclear energy to China in 2022, with the US coming in first. It is worth considering whether Macron’s positivity is justified in the context of several issues that currently beset the country’s industry, including EDF’s unpredictable performance, lack of strong allies in the European Council, slow progress on SMR development and Russian interdependence.

EDF’s annus horribilis

Électricité de France (EDF) is the French multinational electric utility company that runs the country’s 56 reactors. Throughout 2022, many were forced offline for maintenance work, causing output to fall below 1990 levels, despite installed capacity being 5GW lower at this time.

Nuclear shutdowns are in themselves not a huge cause for concern. Older power plants need to be updated with the latest technologies and France was planning on widespread shutdowns for its ‘Grand Carénage’ refurbishment programme anyway. However, the nature of these specific stoppages was worrying.

In December 2021, the discovery of cracks in the emergency core cooling systems of four of the newest French reactors led to them being shut down. The four units, which each produce 1.5GW, did not generate a single kilowatt-hour throughout 2022. Other 1.3GW reactors also showed similar symptoms, and by mid-2022, 12 additional reactors were shut down due to the same problem. In its annual electricity review, Réseau de Transport d’Électricité  highlighted the crux of the issue, stating, “these outages, or outage extensions to carry out maintenance, tests and repairs where needed, primarily involved the newest reactors in the fleet (N4 and P4 designs), i.e. reactors that were not targeted for investment in the Grand Carénage refit programme”.

Although EDF’s nuclear output was 14.8% higher in 2023 than 2022 as reactors came back online, Macron will have to square his desire for new reactors with the ongoing threat of unplanned shutdowns at existing newer plants. Mycle Schneider, nuclear analyst and author of the annual World Nuclear Status Reports, commented on the ongoing unpredictability of EDF’s output, stating: “We have repeatedly seen that EDF was off by several gigawatts of nuclear capacity availability in predictions for the following week. If you look at availability on a certain day, and then go back one week, nuclear availability is several gigawatts different to the projection made a week previously.”

Seeking international allies

Three months after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech: “Before Fukushima . . . I was convinced that it was highly unlikely that [an accident] would occur in a high-tech country with high safety standards. Now it has happened.”

The French Government was shocked at this staunch anti-nuclear stance, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy told a recent parliamentary hearing that in a phone call with Merkel: “I tell her – but Angela, what’s going on? How can this be? She says, but Nicolas, have you not seen Fukushima? And I said – but where is the tsunami going to come from in Bavaria?”

This anecdote encapsulates France and Germany’s ongoing disagreement on nuclear energy, which reached a peak in 2023. The two nations differed in their opinions on the use of contracts for difference (CfDs) for nuclear energy. CfDs reduce the risk of investment in nuclear by providing companies with a fixed price for their output over a certain period, therefore offering a more predictable rate of return on capital. France supported the use of CfDs but Germany feared the state incursion would distort the price mechanism in the EU’s internal energy market if strict limitations on excess revenues from CfDs were not put in place.

While an agreement , which assured Germany that CfDs would be properly designed, was eventually reached in December, the escapade, along with Germany’s decision to decommission its final three nuclear power stations in April, highlights the difference of opinion between the two EU powers. France previously looked to the UK as a nuclear ally within the bloc to help push legislation through the EU Council, but Brexit put an end to this convenience.

In March last year, France signed a new alliance pushing for nuclear energy to be at the heart of the EU’s green energy transition plans, placing it on an equal footing with other renewable technologies. A total of 11 ministers signed the declaration; however, one signature was conspicuous by its absence: that of Italian Energy Minister Gilberto Pichetto Fratin. At the time, the new pro-nuclear Meloni government flirted with the idea of joining the alliance but eventually chose to only assume observer status. If Italy signed up fully, its large number of EU Council votes would have nudged the council towards a pro-nuclear majority, allowing France to push through favourable nuclear legislation and circumvent staunch opposition members such as Germany and Austria.

Italy closed its last nuclear reactors in 1990, but in September last year Fratin said that Italy is looking to revive its nuclear industry. Schneider is pessimistic about the revival’s prospects, considering failed attempts under previous governments. He said: “These pledges are not new. There was an attempt to revitalise the industry under Berlusconi. Also, EDF hoped for Italy as a partner in the Flamanville project, to build up some kind of joint investment. All this has gone nowhere. If you look at the Italian industry, their latest construction project was in Slovakia. Construction originally started in 1985 and it has only just started up. If we are judging on the basis of past experience, it is very unlikely that the Italian industry will get off the ground.”

SMRs – a false dawn?

The creation of the EU SMR Industrial Alliance in November accentuates the blocs’ commitment to modular technology in its nuclear drive. Naturally, France led the group of 11 countries signing the alliance.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IEAE) defines SMRs as advanced nuclear fission reactors that have a power generation capacity of up to 300MW per unit – around a third of the capacity of traditional reactors. The ‘small’ and ‘modular’ nature of their design means they can be sited at locations unsuited to larger nuclear power plants. Their diminutive size is also meant to save on construction time and cost.

Despite significant optimism around the technology, little progress has been made on the ground. The most advanced SMR project in the western world was forcibly abandoned in November 2023 due to excessive costs. US-based NuScale scrapped the development with a conglomerate of Utah municipalities after the cost estimate of the project increased to $9.3bn, bringing the cost per kilowatt to $20,000 for the plant, around twice the cost of the most expensive European pressurised water reactor.

Subsequently, there are no SMRs in commercial operation in the west. Placing the EU alliance in this context, Schneider said: “We are not talking commercial contracts. It is like this alliance [EU SMR Industrial Alliance], which is kind of nice. Everybody [the 11 signatories] puts a name under it, but it does not mean anything in industrial terms.”

Even in Russia, where SMR output has been achieved (although, not commercially), there have been construction issues. The reactor took more than 12.7 years to build, more than three-times the 3.7-year target. Schneider noted that this “was not really the demonstration of easy, quick feasibility” that SMRs are meant to be. China too has two operational SMRs, but no production or cost figures on the reactors are yet available.

Overcoming Russian interdependency

Russia is still the primary constructor and exporter of nuclear reactors, with the state company Rosatom, as of mid-2023, building 24 out of the 58 constructed around the world. While France has taken part in a host of EU sanctions placed on Russian energy exports designed to curb revenue for the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine, the measures have not included sanctions on the nuclear sector.

Five EU countries – Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary and Slovakia (all of which are part of the French-led EU “nuclear alliance”) – operate Soviet era water-water energy reactors (VVER). The reactors require a specific type of VVER fuel, the large majority of which is produced by Rosatom. Out of the 19 reactors in the countries, 15 are VVER-440 models, and in September US nuclear manufacturer Westinghouse became the first company outside of Russia to produce the VVER-440 fuel for a plant in Ukraine. However, it is still unclear how fast the changeover to Westinghouse fuel will occur.

In the Czech Republic, the Temelín VVER-1000 plant used fuel supplied by Westinghouse and Framatome in the first decade of its operations but switched to Russian supplier TVEL in 2010. Although the country cited economic reasons for the move, there could also have been technical issues with Westinghouse’s VVER-1000 fuel. Russia continues to dominate in expertise and economies of scale in the production of VVER-400 fuel, leading to what Schneider described as “technical dependency”, making it difficult for the dependent European nations to diversify away from it.

While France is looking to build an alliance with EU nations that still have strong links with the Russian nuclear sector, its own institutions are also interlinked. Framatome, an EDF subsidiary, originally planned to set up a joint venture with Rosatom subsidiary TVEL to manufacture VVER fuel elements in its Lingen plant in Germany. However, in spring 2023, it became clear that the German Government would likely oppose the deal, so the Franco-Russian company was set up in France, with TVEL owning 25% of it. Advanced Nuclear Fuels, a Framatome subsidiary that operates the Lingen plant, wants to extend the manufacturing plant with a dedicated VVER-fuel production line. The Lower Saxony Government is opposed to the project, but under the Atomic Law it does not have a veto right. This leaves the decision in the hands of the federal government, which as of January 2024, has not been taken. Schneider noted the irregularity of the Framatome-Rosatom partnership, considering Framatome could have worked with Westinghouse given the US company’s capability to manufacture VVER fuel. He added that although the reason for this decision is unclear and there is limited evidence to illustrate strong reasoning, “it is quite likely to do with technical difficulties” with the Westinghouse fuel.

As France looks to expand its nuclear industry, there will be challenges, both within its domestic industry and its international relations, that the country will have to address. France’s nuclear watchdog recently said there was “lack of rigour and performance” in EDFs supply chain monitoring and this will have to improve if output is to become stable. While Italy has signalled its desire to re-establish nuclear power, if plans remain unrealised, it is unlikely to be a reliable nuclear ally within the EU council – something which France desperately needs if it is to push through nuclear friendly legislation. SMRs could become a key source of nuclear energy if on-the-ground development begins in earnest, but so far progress has been limited to hopeful pledges. As long as it remains largely dependent on the tenuous, unpredictable Russian regime for its nuclear fuel generation, France’s nuclear plans will have an insecure foundation. If France is to materialise its abstract nuclear dreams into everyday energy production, it will need to address each of these issues pragmatically.

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