Macron to close more of France’s nuclear reactors (but why NOW?)
President Emmanuel Macron of France depressed nuclear executives globally in late November 2018, announcing the planned retirement of 14 of 58 reactors by 2035. This was still less than was promised in his election campaign, but represents a major internal political battle, as well as a major change of France’s circumstances.
This has been an emerging story for several years.
France did a better job than most of building nuclear plants. They picked a single design and built a bunch of them over a relatively concentrated 20 years from about 1978 onward. It was a massive, state-funded, state-managed energy infrastructure initiative at a scale rarely seen. They dodged a bunch of the mistakes of other geographies somewhat by accident. They aren’t subject to earthquakes or tsunamis. They kept the technology highly standard. They developed a skilled workforce for building them and rewarded them well.
But the last nuclear reactor went live almost 20 years ago, the oldest ones are at end-of-life, and the skilled workforce only knows how to maintain and operate existing reactors now, not build new ones. The current President of France, Macron, used to be the Minister of Industry. He’s stated publicly that even he couldn’t find out how much the build-out actually cost, with the clear assertion that a bunch of actual costs were hidden.
“Nobody knows the total cost for nuclear energy,” he said. “I was minister for industry and I could not tell you.”
And France had to build nuclear to be load-following due to its over-reliance on a more usually inflexible form of generation. Nuclear is good for baseload up to 30–40%, but when it has to be turned on and off it gets a lot more expensive very quickly. France has the good fortune to have been able to export a lot of electricity to the rest of the EU for several years, but the energy mix on the continent is strongly favoring more flexible forms of generation.
And now, a few things have changed in the decades since France made its huge bet on nuclear generation in the Messmer Plan in 1974.
Renewables are dirt cheap, with Lazard’s latest figures bringing them in at 3–6 times cheaper than new nuclear. (Amusingly, Lazard still labels wind and solar as ‘alternative energy‘.) Europe is a leading geography for wind and solar, so skilled trades and supply chains all exist. Europe’s grid has strengthened and expanded over the past 30 years, so the need for a country to go it alone has diminished substantially.
The EU was founded in 1993 and France is an integral part of it, and that has two impacts. The first is that France’s energy independence policy that was part of the impetus for a massive nuclear fleet looks archaic in context of modern politics and economics. The second is that EU regulations forbid destabilizingly large governmental subsidies for energy, something which the Hinkley plant in the EU had to fight through. As Macron’s experience shows, it’s actually impossible for anyone to figure out how much any nuclear plant actually cost due to budget fudging. This last is true globally, by the way.
French attempts to build next-generation reactors are failing in multiple locations in France and elsewhere. The cost and budget overruns and construction failures are staggering.
And Chernobyl and Fukushima both happened since the French nuclear build-out began. Public support diminished substantially after those events, one on the same continent and one a world away.
France receives a greater percentage of its electricity from nuclear than any country in the world, at 72% close to 50% more than its nearest ‘competitor’, Slovakia. And it will diminish over the coming decades. Its last-built reactor will reach end-of-life in 2040 or so. It’s unlikely that it will be replaced. And it’s unlikely that more than a fraction of the aging reactors will be refurbished at all.
Wind, solar, a continent-scale grid, and open economic borders all contributed to the death of the French nuclear dream. It’s time for France to wake up and join the future, and it has. It voted in Macron, a politician who promised to reduce France’s nuclear fleet. He fought the entrenched bureaucracy and EDF, and while the new plans are slower than the promised ones, they are the right plans on a pragmatic timeline.