France is a stronghold of nuclear energy in Europe, with more than 70% of its electricity coming from nuclear power plants. However, after the disastrous 2011 explosion at a plant in Fukushima, Japan, and significant cost overruns at a new plant in Flamanville in northwestern France, national pride around France’s nuclear capacity has dissipated.
At the start of his presidency, Macron announced his intention to shut down 14 reactors and reduce the contribution of nuclear power to the French energy mix from 75 to 50% by 2035.
But the mood is changing. This week, Macron is expected to announce the development of six so-called small modular reactors (SMRs), or “mini” nuclear power plants.
The approval is also a way for Macron to show his pro-nuclear credentials as a number of his most likely challengers in next year’s presidential election demand more investment.
“Nuclear is coming [back] at the heart of the energy debate in France and much faster than I would have thought, ”said Denis Florin, partner at Lavoisier Conseil, an energy-focused management consulting firm.
Advocates say the availability and predictability of nuclear power has proven successful in an era of soaring gas prices, while renewables remain volatile and difficult to store. These benefits, which have shielded French industrial companies and consumers from the most severe price hikes seen in other parts of Europe, have started to outweigh lingering safety concerns.
About 25% of French electricity is sold at a regulated price of € 42 per megawatt hour (MWh). The rest are subject to broader market prices and, in particular, a European pricing mechanism which means countries pay for the last unit of energy consumed – normally gas – which has created some frustration among consumers. French.
French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has called for a complete overhaul of the electricity pricing mechanism in Europe, which he says unfairly prevents French citizens from taking full advantage of its nuclear capacity.
France also wants nuclear energy to be labeled as “green” in the EU’s evolving green finance taxonomy which determines which economic activities can benefit from a “sustainable finance” label. France and Eastern European capitals want to show investors that nuclear power is part of the EU’s journey to carbon neutrality, while Germany and others have resisted, mainly highlighting the environmental impact of nuclear waste.
Many on the left of French politics remain committed to the idea of reducing France’s nuclear power supply, seeing it as a substitute for ambitious investments in renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. , at a crucial time in the ambitions of EU governments to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.
But proponents of nuclear power argue that in recent weeks France has posted much lower carbon emissions than Germany, which quickly ended its nuclear fleet since 2011 and has invested heavily in renewables. , but also became more dependent on coal.
Nicolas Goldberg, senior energy analyst at Columbus Consulting, said Macron had now “firmly taken the path of seducing the right rather than the left” with his nuclear policy, at a time when many presidential rivals from right-wing promise to improve France’s nuclear capability. .
Center-right candidate Valérie Pécresse said this month she would end the scheduled shutdown of 12 nuclear reactors and give state-owned energy company EDF the green light to produce six new nuclear power plants.
Eric Zemmour, who is rising rapidly in the polls after captivating the French public with his anti-immigration rhetoric, also called for more nuclear investment and lambasted Macron’s investment in wind power. “I do not want our country to lose its energy sovereignty under the pretext of an absurd energy transition modeled on Germany,” he wrote in Le Point magazine this month.
Such calls also reflect changes in public opinion.
While a recent Odoxa opinion poll revealed that French public opinion is still globally more favorable to wind power than nuclear power, at 63% against 51%, French citizens’ support for nuclear power has increased. by 17 percentage points over the past two years, while positive perceptions of wind power have declined accordingly.
According to the same survey, nuclear power is considered cheaper than wind power and less damaging to the countryside, while being an area where France is “more advanced than its neighbors”.
Macron has proposed six new “mini-reactors” operating on a technology that is presented as less powerful but also less complex to produce and operate than conventional reactors. Industry analysts say they are helping to maintain France’s industrial competitiveness as prototypes are already being developed in China, Russia, the United States and Japan.
Several analysts believe Macron will deepen nuclear technology by building at least six conventional European pressure reactors (EPRs), which will be built by 2044 – a project the government has been pondering for years. Documents obtained by the French press in 2019 suggested it would cost the heavily indebted French EDF around € 47 billion.
This month, RTE, the operator of the French grid, is due to publish six scenarios for France’s future energy mix by 2050, ranging from 100% renewable energy to several new nuclear power plants. “I’m confident Macron will announce six or eight new EPR power plants at the end of this month – he’s just waiting for this report,” Goldberg said.
For those who have spent years advocating for increased investment in renewable energy sources and thought they had the President’s ear, the growing momentum toward nuclear has been a disappointment.
“Each euro invested in nuclear is a euro not invested in other energies,” said Matthieu Orphelin, a deputy who represented Macron’s party but has now switched to the Greens of France. “A permanent headlong rush towards nuclear power will not save us. “