France plans to close 17 nuc power plants
Switching to wind and solar power would cost €217bn by 2035
14 July, 2017
France could close “up to 17 nuclear reactors” by 2025, according to the French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot’s announcement on 10 July. Hulot said the move aims to bring policy in line with a law on renewable energy that aims to reduce French reliance on nuclear power to 50%.
France currently derives close to 75% of its electricity from nuclear power. The push for diversification comes on the heels of other high-profile stances taken by Hulot and the administration of President Emmanuel Macron, including a ban on new fossil fuel exploration, an end to the sale of gas and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040, and a recently announced climate conference to be held on 12 December for the two-year anniversary of the signing of the Paris Accord.
“It’s understandable that in order to reach that target, we will have to close a number of reactors … it could be up to 17 reactors, we’ll have to see,” Hulot told French radio station RTL. “Every reactor comes with its own unique economic, social and even security context.”
Such a reduction in nuclear power generation would signal a large break with France’s traditional energy policy. France’s heavy investment in nuclear power dates back to the 1973 oil crisis, which fuelled the French government’s desire for energy independence. With few natural resources - oil, gas or coal - on its territory, France’s policy-makers saw nuclear as the answer. They proceeded with a highly centralised and aggressive national plan to build a fleet of nuclear plants, based on a single design - the American Pressurised Water Reactor. Within seven years, the country had completed construction on 76% of its current 58 reactors at an inflation-adjusted cost of €290bn ($330bn).
As a result, French greenhouse gas emissions fell drastically from the late 1970s to today. In 2014, France averaged CO2 emissions of 4.32 tonnes per capita, below the EU average of 6.22 tonnes per person and well below the US average of 16.22 tonnes per person.
France’s nuclear plants - built for a planned lifespan of 40 years - are ageing. The average plant is more than 30 years old, and 15 of France's 58 reactors are over 35. The oldest of these is Fessenheim, built in 1977.
During the most recent presidential campaign, the Institut Montaigne, a liberal think tank based in Paris, released a report concluding that if a phase-out of nuclear power were initiated immediately in favour of wind and solar, it would cost €217bn by 2035, including grid upgrades. Moreover, dismantling existing reactors once they reach the end of their lifespan, along with treating waste, is projected to cost some €85bn.
The cost of pursuing a new generation of nuclear plants, however, would be even more significant.
In 2016, France's Cour des comptes, a government body charged with overseeing public finances, estimated that prolonging the lifespan of the reactors would cost €100bn. Add to that an estimate from EDF chief Jean-Bernard Levy that 30 to 40 new plants would need to be constructed between 2030 and 2050 to replace the current fleet and the total bill for maintaining nuclear power would balloon to somewhere between €250bn and €300bn.