France unveils nuclear power overhaul – with an eye on China

French President Emmanuel Macron announced a shift to small modular nuclear reactors on Tuesday as he unveiled his €30 billion, five-year strategy to bolster France’s high-tech sectors, building on the country’s history as a pioneer of nuclear energy. Analysts hail the technology as highly promising, especially in the face of Chinese competition.

France's President Emmanuel Macron speaks during the presentation of "France 2030" investment plan at the Élysée  Palace in Paris, October 12, 2021.
France's President Emmanuel Macron speaks during the presentation of "France 2030" investment plan at the Élysée Palace in Paris, October 12, 2021. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

Macron announced that the “number one priority” for his industrial strategy was for France to develop “innovative small-scale nuclear reactors” by 2030. 

This marks a sea change in France’s approach to nuclear energy. The 1974 Messmer plan (named after then PM Pierre Messmer) poured colossal investment into nuclear power after the previous year’s oil crisis caused by the OPEC embargo exposed the fragility of France’s reliance on imported oil. The strategy allows France to source more than 70 percent of its energy from nuclear power – the highest proportion in the world. Until now, this huge nuclear sector has been built around ever-larger reactors. 

“The small modular reactors each generate less than 300 megawatts (MW) of energy; far less than most reactors currently in service, which tend to produce between 950 and 1300 MW, with some of them including the Flamanville plant [on the English Channel] capable of as much as 1600 MW,” said Giorgio Locatelli, an expert on the engineering of nuclear power stations at Milan Polytechnic. 

The components of these smaller reactors are usually built in a factory assembly line and then transported for assembly on site, where they can be easily adapted to the plant’s particular needs – making them nuclear power’s answer to Ikea furniture. 

This approach is expected to make it easier to build nuclear plants – especially after construction delays in Flamanville’s reactor 3 during the last decade demonstrated that putting in place a huge new reactor can be a tricky process.  

In the grand sweep of the history of French nuclear power, the shift towards smaller reactors looks like a step back, Locatelli suggested, because France “started with small reactors in the 1960s before switching to larger ones to develop economies of scale”. 

However, this trend has now reached its limited, he continued. “Reactors like the one at Flamanville are not only very expensive, but also it’s a long and complex process to build them.” It takes billions to create such plants, and often it is difficult for governments to find investors willing to wait up to a decade before their returns start coming in. 

Competition with China

Most countries lack the means to pull of these massive reactors, noted Nicolas Mazzucchi, an energy specialist at France’s Foundation for Strategic Research: “The financing models they require – not to mention the capacity to really mobilise a country’s savoir-faire in this domain – are increasingly rare, except in nations like Russia and China where energy companies have total state backing.” 

Consequently, switching to small modular reactors is a strategic pivot to allow France to deal with competition from countries like China, which has increasingly big ambitions when it comes to nuclear power. 

France’s change of approach could also allow it to win lucrative new markets. “By 2025, nearly a quarter of the world’s existing nuclear capacity will be exhausted because the reactors will have become too old,” Mazzucchi continued. 

A further reason why small nuclear reactors could be a French export bonanza is that they can be used for crucial purposes other than energy generation. “It’s a very flexible form of technology,” Locatelli said.

“These reactors can be used for water desalination – a highly important task in places like the Middle East and even India – as well as to produce hydrogen to heat homes in colder parts of the world,” Mazzucchi pointed out. 

In theory, small reactors are also likely to be safer than traditional large reactors. Japan’s Fukushima accident in 2011 dented nuclear energy’s reputation for safety – then the Taishan incident in China in July showed that technical problems can also assail the most modern reactors. 

By definition, small reactors “contain less nuclear material, which in theory gives them the potential to be safer”, noted Karine Herviou, deputy director in charge of nuclear safety at France’s Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety. This can “limit” the release of radioactive substances in the event of an accident – in addition to the safety measures that will be in place, Herviou continued. 

In particular, procedures tailored to small reactors can allow operators to “get rid of the residual power produced by the reactor after a shutdown”, Herviou added. It was this residual power that caused the reactor cores to melt at Fukushima and during the Three Mile Island incident in the US in 1979. 

‘Lack of experience’ 

But that is just a theory. The people in charge of reactors using cutting-edge technology “will have to justify their safety”, Herviou said. 

So far, the theoretical advantages of small modular reactors have not been confirmed in practice. Some 70 such reactors are currently in development throughout the world – and the vast majority of these projects are still in the early stages. 

“The main concern with this technology is the lack of a track record,” said Locatelli. What is more, he continued, nuclear power’s “chicken-and-egg problem is still there: Is it better to start building reactors first to win over buyers or is it best to find the investors first?”  

Although the race for small modular reactors has only just got under way, France is “starting late” compared to the US, Mazzucchi said. Across the Atlantic, regulators have already given the green light to at least one such project – with an entire ecosystem of start-ups emerging to develop this technology. 

Nevertheless, France has every chance of succeeding. “Its big advantage is that its energy sector has already proven itself when it comes to nuclear technology, while controlling the entire supply chain from uranium mining to designing reactors,” Mazzucchi said. And the country will have around a decade to develop its expertise in small nuclear reactors before it can reap the rewards in exports. From 2030 there will be a “real market for this type of reactor”, according to France’s Atomic Energy Commission. 

This article was translated from the original in French.

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