Faced with soaring energy prices, threats of shortages due to war tensions with Russia, and the need to reduce CO2 emissions to address climate warming, European countries are panicking. The French response is a combination of resuming the “thread of the great civil nuclear adventure,” with the construction of six new generation EPR2 reactors from 2035 (and the project of eight additional ones, in addition to extending the life of the plants in service beyond 50 years) and, at the same time, a tenfold increase in solar and the construction of 50 wind farms at sea by 2050.
This program, which also has a strong electoral orientation, was announced on Thursday by Emmanuel Macron in Belfort, in the shadow of the Arabelle turbine factory, which EDF (an electricity company with 84% public capital) has bought back after it was sold in 2015 to the American General Electric (with a decision approved by the then Minister of Economy, Macron himself).
Macron, who in the 2017 presidential campaign had promised a reduction of electricity production from nuclear power to 50% (today it is over 70%) and closed the old Fessenheim plant (two reactors), is now changing course, returning to the past on nuclear power and putting EDF back at the center. Nuclear power is deemed essential to achieve carbon neutrality in 2050 and “in 30 years, make France be the first major country to exit fossil fuels and strengthen energy and industrial independence, an example on the climate.” Macron is selling “green” nuclear power.
For the president, there are two “major construction projects of the century”: the first is to reduce energy consumption by 40% over the next 30 years, with “sobriety” not “degrowth,” not “restrictions” but “innovation,” “industrial transformation,” targeted investments. The second is to produce decarbonized energy, “get out of fossil fuels,” but produce more (+60%) to cope with the increased demand for electricity. Macron is repurposing the traditional narrative of France’s energy (and political) independence, initiated by De Gaulle and relaunched in a big way after the oil crisis of ’73-’74, with the construction of 13 reactors (on Thursday, in Belfort, he was accompanied by former minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, of the sovereignist left, who in the days of Mitterrand inaugurated one of the power plants).
Macron admitted: “We are lagging behind” on renewables, which in France, especially when it comes to wind power, tend to arouse great opposition for reasons tied to protecting the landscape and animal habitats. Macron explained that the development of renewables is essential in the short term, then the security of supply will come from the revival of nuclear power (it takes at least 15 years to build a plant). France has lost know-how: the EPR plant in Flamanville, under construction, is expected to come into operation at the end of this year, 10 years late. The construction of another EPR by the French, in Finland, is 12 years behind schedule and costs are skyrocketing.
In October, RTE, the operator of electricity transmission networks, had presented six possible scenarios, featuring more or less nuclear power: Macron has chosen an intermediate way, with the commitment to build six new reactors (and to design eight more), to which he added the extension of the life of the 56 currently in operation beyond 50 years. The costs will be enormous: for the first battery of six reactors, there is talk of €50-60 billion (hence the importance of including nuclear power in the European “taxonomy,” in order to attract private investment). Costs are exploding already, with eight reactors currently closed and another three in shutdown for maintenance, with corrosion problems.
It’s all “electioneering” and “opportunism,” reacted Europa Ecologia’s presidential candidate, Yannick Jadot: “Macron is condemning France to a century of nuclear power.” Jadot instead promises the closure of the oldest reactors and the development of renewables, “but I am responsible, I will guarantee the supply of electricity to families and businesses.”
Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Insoumise, who at first had pledged to get out of nuclear power in 2030, now speaks of 2045: “it is not a technical issue, but a political one.” For the Socialist Anne Hidalgo, the end of nuclear power cannot come before 2050, with renewables, but until then France “needs nuclear power.” The PCF candidate, Fabien Roussel, is in favor of nuclear power, which “meets the needs” of the three million French people in a situation of “energy insecurity.” The right and far right are hardline pro-nuclear.
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