France, already a world leader in nuclear power generation, plans to build at least six new reactors, with President Emmanuel Macron on Feb. 10 saying the country will consider building an additional eight on top of that as it also moves forward with developing small modular reactors (SMR).
Macron, who is up for re-election in April, made the comments during an appearance Thursday at GE Steam Power’s manufacturing site at Belfort in eastern France. He said nuclear power is critical to the country’s efforts to increase its output of carbon-free electricity as it moves away from coal and natural gas. Macron also said his country would add more renewable energy, including as many as 50 offshore wind installations that would enable France to have 40 GW of offshore wind generation capacity in service by 2050.
French officials recently said the country would allow its last two operational coal-fired power plants to operate far more than usually permitted through at least the end of February due to about a dozen of France’s 56 existing reactors being offline for maintenance. France usually receives more than 70% of its electricity from nuclear power, with just 2% from coal-fired generators. The country currently has 2 MW of offshore wind capacity in operation, and is in the process of putting 8.75 GW of capacity out to tender by 2028.
Macron said France must find ways to generate as much as 60% more electricity by 2050 even as it exits fossil fuels. “Key to producing this electricity in the most carbon-free, safest and most sovereign way is precisely to have a plural strategy … to develop both renewable and nuclear energies,” Macron said Thursday. “We have no other choice but to bet on these two pillars at the same time. It is the most relevant choice from an ecological point of view and the most expedient from an economic point of view and finally the least costly from a financial point of view.”
Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, in January said European Union member countries will need to invest about 500 billion euros ($565 billion) into nuclear power by 2050 if the EU is to meet a goal of carbon neutrality.
“Whether someone believes that climate change is anthropomorphic or not, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the planet,” said Chuck Goodnight, a partner at Arthur D. Little and leader of the firm’s nuclear team. Goodnight recently told POWER, “To me, that means that we must do all we can to minimize any environmental impact resulting from human activity. Given that electricity production by means of nuclear power has minimal direct environmental impact, it should rank at the top of any energy production strategy.”
Increasing Renewable Energy
EDF, France’s state-owned electric utility, has a goal to increase renewable energy this decade in addition to supporting nuclear power. Hydropower at present is the country’s leading source of renewable energy, accounting for about 10% of electricity production. EDF in 2017 launched a plan to promote development of solar photovoltaic energy in France, and its EDF Renewables subsidiary also is involved in onshore and offshore wind.
Under the country’s current energy plan, France will have up to 12.4 GW of fixed-bottom and floating offshore wind capacity either in operation or under development by the end of 2028. That includes nine offshore wind projects in the pipeline, including an ongoing tender for a commercial floating offshore wind project off the south of Brittany with a capacity of up to 270 MW. The projects also include the 600-MW Dunkirk tender held in 2019. France also has four demonstration floating wind projects under development.
Macron said that along with adding renewable energy, and instead of reducing its reliance on nuclear power, the country should look to extend the operating life of its existing reactors, as long as safety is not compromised. “If it is necessary to be cautious about the ability to extend our reactors, I hope that no nuclear reactor in a state of production will be closed in the future given the very significant increase in our electrical needs; except, of course, if safety reasons were necessary,” he said.
George Borovas, a partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth and head of the firm’s nuclear practice at its Tokyo, Japan, office, told POWER, “Safety and safety improvement have always been cornerstones of the nuclear industry. While nuclear is a demonstrably safe form of energy with one of the lowest death rates when compared to the mortality rates from other energy sources, the accident at Fukushima Daichi [in March 2011] did provide some important lessons that the global nuclear industry has now fully incorporated into its designs and operations.”
Macron noted French nuclear regulators have had safety top of mind when reviewing operations of the country’s current reactors. The president said some reactors already have had operating licenses extended beyond 40 years, and he would ask EDF, France’s state-owned electric utility, and ASN, the nuclear regulator, to “study the conditions for extending beyond 50 years.”
Macron said the nuclear new-build program is based on what the country has learned from other recent reactor construction, including the oft-delayed Flamanville 3 project. Construction of a single Generation III 1,600-MW EPR began in 2007 at the site of an existing nuclear station at Flamanville in Normandy. The project was initially scheduled to be completed in 2012, but the reactor is still not in service, and its total projected cost—$14.4 billion—is now at four times its original estimate.
“We have learned lessons from the construction of EPR in Finland [Olkiluoto 3], where it is now complete, and in France at Flamanville. EDF has undertaken with the nuclear sector the design of a new reactor for the French market, the EPR2, which has already mobilized more than one million hours of engineering and presents significant progress compared with the EPR of Flamanville,” Macron said. “I would like six EPR2s to be built and for us to launch studies on the construction of eight additional EPR2s. We will thus advance step by step.”
The delays at Flamanville have echoed the situation at Plant Vogtle in Georgia, site of a two-unit expansion that is the only utility-scale nuclear power project currently under construction in the U.S. The Vogtle project also is years behind scheduled and billions of dollars over budget.
Those problems, among others, recently led several members of the nuclear power community to question nuclear’s role in combating climate change, and have said no new reactors should be built.
Preparations Set to Start
Macron in his remarks at the GE plant said preparations for France’s new reactors will begin over the next few weeks, including finalizing reactor designs and locations, with public discussions of the plans taking place in the second half of this year.
“We are aiming for construction to begin by 2028, with the first reactor commissioned by 2035,” he said. “This implementation deadline also justifies the need to extend our current reactors and develop renewable energies.”
Macron said 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) will be made available through the France 2030 re-industrialization plan for the country’s Nuward SMR project, along with other “innovative reactors to close the fuel cycle and produce less waste.” He said he wants to have a prototype built in France by the end of the decade, while acknowledging that is “an ambitious goal.”
“SMRs hold the promise of being able to directly replace existing fossil energy sources such as coal and gas plants,” said Goodnight. “Typical SMR designs would fit well in the physical site footprint of existing fossil power plants, while taking advantage of the existing infrastructure. The impact on greenhouse gas production would be significant if we replaced every coal or gas plant with an SMR.”
25 GW of New Nuclear by 2050
French officials in the past decade talked about reducing the country’s reliance on nuclear power, though Macron said reactors need to be part of an entire energy strategy.
“This new program could lead to the commissioning of 25 gigawatts of new nuclear capacity by 2050,” Macron said. “To implement these decisions, the regulatory, financial and organizational conditions of the sector and of the state must be met.” He added, “an inter-ministerial program department dedicated to new nuclear power will be created to oversee it, coordinate administrative procedures, and ensure compliance with construction costs and deadlines. EDF will build and operate the new EPRs.”
“This national sovereignty enterprise, which is our common good, will be able to count on the support of the state for its solidity in the months, years and decades to come and to carry out this project on a scale unmatched for 40 years and to do so under the best financial and operational conditions,” Macron said. “From a financial and regulatory perspective, massive public funding of several tens of billions of euros will be committed to finance this new program, which will make it possible to preserve EDF’s financial situation and develop the entire sector.”
Macron’s ramp-up of nuclear power differs from that of his predecessor, Francois Hollande, who had called for the country to close reactors and reduce nuclear’s share of the national power generation mix to 50% by 2025. A law enacted during Hollande’s term said EDF would have to close older reactors in order to bring new ones online.
A climate initiative presented in 2019 under Macron’s administration said the “50% by 2025” target for reducing the country’s reliance on nuclear power should be pushed to 2035. That initiative also looked at how the country could increase electricity production from renewable energy, with offshore wind a large part of the program.
“As of this year, we will be commissioning the first offshore wind farm off Saint-Nazaire,” Macron said in his Thursday speech. “But here too, what we have started to do is to recreate and deploy a French industrial sector. The factories in Le Havre, Saint-Nazaire and Cherbourg will provide all the necessary equipment and we will continue to develop industrial employment and investments there too so that these strong choices for offshore wind power are accompanied by the creation of jobs everywhere on our territory.”
—Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).