France’s Nuclear Energy Future

By Katherine Pioro

For the past forty years, France has relied primarily on nuclear power. But as the energy landscape continues to rapidly change, France’s nuclear sector is plagued with both financial and safety troubles. Can France maintain its status as renewable energy powerhouse, or will it have to integrate alternative sources of energy?

No other country in the world depends on nuclear energy more than France, where nuclear power accounts for over 75 percent of total electricity generation. The success of France’s nuclear program has been one of its crowning achievements for the past few decades. In a world where the citizens and governments of many Western countries are wary of nuclear energy after atrocities like the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 and the Fukushima disaster of 2011, France’s nuclear sector employs over 220,000 people and accounts for two percent of the country’s GDP. Thanks to nuclear energy, France is the second largest net electricity exporter in the world. Part of France’s success with nuclear power comes from its establishing a standard design for nuclear reactors and the government’s unwavering support of the program.

Despite its past success, France’s nuclear sector has run into a number of safety and financial issues in the past year. In March 2016, the Fessenheim nuclear plant, located near the German and Swiss borders, was temporarily shut down due to irregularities in its steam generators. Recently, Switzerland filed a lawsuit over France’s Bugey nuclear plant for “deliberately endangering the lives of others.” Now 20 of the country’s 58 nuclear reactors are under inspection. France’s nuclear sector is struggling with more than just safety issues, however. In March of 2016, Thomas Piquemal, the finance director of Electricité de France (EDF), France’s largest nuclear energy company, resigned from his job. His resignation comes at the heels of EDF’s decision to push forward with an £18 billion project to build a massive nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset, England. Piquemal’s resignation calls attention to the troubling financial situation of the French nuclear sector.

Electricité de France is owned primarily by the French government and despite the €36 billion of debt it has incurred, both the French and British governments reiterated their support for the Hinkley project. France’s government will go to great lengths to preserve France’s status as a nuclear powerhouse. For instance, in April the French government provided EDF with a $3 billion bailout to pay for project expenses. But there is much opposition to France’s commitment to EDF and nuclear power. In addition to the resignation of the company’s finance director, the EDF unions are taking legal action to stop the building of the plant. Germany and Switzerland also demand that France shut down some of its oldest nuclear reactors, including the Fessenheim plant.

Clearly, France’s nuclear sector is in danger, and there are significant economic ramifications involved in continuing to prop up companies such as EDF and focusing so exclusively on nuclear energy. First, the government would lose more credibility than it already has in the eyes of the French people. For the past few decades, the French government has put the nuclear sector on a pedestal in order to paint the picture of an eco-friendly, technologically-advanced France. However, the government’s attempts at saving the nuclear sector from bankruptcy is costing taxpayers over €10 billion. France also risks jeopardizing its relationships with neighboring countries. The aging nuclear plants close to France’s borders with Switzerland and Germany have already leaked and will only become more unstable as time passes. While countries may be separated by borders, the detrimental effects of a nuclear reaction are not contained; if anything disastrous were to happen, Germany and Switzerland would have to suffer the consequences, despite their repeated demands that France dismantle its old plants. Finally, focusing so exclusively on nuclear energy impedes France from investing in safer, more reliable renewable energy sources. A common theory regarding our energy future is that it will be a mix of renewable energy sources. Instead of investing billions of euros in nuclear energy, France should reallocate some of that money towards developing technologies such as photovoltaic cells for solar power. While France may have had success in the nuclear sector in the past, it is time for the country to decrease its dependence on nuclear energy as it has been planning to do since 2011.