France could close 'up to 17' nuclear reactors by 2025
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Nicolas Hulot, France’s environment minister, announced on Monday that France could close “up to 17 nuclear reactors” by 2025.
Hulot says the move aims to bring policy into line with a law on renewable energy that aims to reduce French reliance on nuclear power to 50 percent. France currently derives close to 75 percent 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 December 12 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 fueled 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 Pressurized Water Reactor. Within seven years, the country had completed construction on 76 percent of its current 58 reactors at an inflation-adjusted cost of $330 billion (€290 billion).
That initial public investment left France largely self-sufficient in electricity generation; at 75 percent, the amount of electricity that it derives from nuclear is the highest percentage in the world. It also created two iconic firms – Areva (partially owned by the French state), which builds nuclear reactors, and Électricité de France (EDF), an 85 percent publically owned utility that operates France’s nuclear plants in an industry that employs more than 200,000 people.
As a result, French greenhouse gas emissions fell drastically from the late 1970s to today. In 2014, France averaged CO2 emissions of 4.32 tons per capita, below the EU average of 6.22 tons per person and well below the US average of 16.22 per person.
Though environmentalists disagree over whether nuclear power can truly be considered “green energy”, the immediate effect on CO2 emissions from Germany’s nuclear halt in 2011 was a slight increase as the country turned to coal-fired plants to compensate in the short term.
An ageing fleet
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. Located near the Franco-German border in Alsace, the plant has been a point of contention between France and Germany, which halted its own nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. In 2014 the discovery of water leaks forced the shutdown of one of the plant’s reactors, an incident that prompted German media to accuse the French government of downplaying the risks.
Ségolène Royal, environment minister under former president François Hollande, announced in April that France would shutter Fessenheim as soon as a new one, under construction in Normandy, entered service. But Hollande’s government also declared its intention to extend the life of France's reactors by 10 years. Whichever road France takes – whether maintaining and replacing its nuclear plants, or phasing them out in favour of alternative energies – the bill is going to be steep.
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 €217 billion 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 €85 billion.
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 €100 billion. Add to that an estimate from EDF chief Jean-Bernard Lévy 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 €250 billion and €300 billion.