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Nuclear phase-out for France?

Gero Rueter / rrSeptember 9, 2015

As the traditionally strong French nuclear power industry continues to be plagued by technical and financial difficulties, the government has sought to cut nuclear power in favor of renewables.

Kernkraftwerk Tricastin ARCHIVBILD 2011
Image: Michel Euler/AFP/Getty Images

French Environment Minister Segolene Royal sparked rebuke Tuesday (08.09.2015) by tying shutdown of the country's oldest nuclear plant to the opening of an EPR reactor that has been delayed for six years already.

For half a century, the French nuclear power sector was the pride of the nation. Even now, it still covers three-quarters of the country's energy needs.

French nuclear power group Areva was for many one of the biggest companies in the global nuclear sector, turning huge profits from mining uranium, producing fuel rods and constructing reactors.

But last year, Areva recorded a loss of 5 billion euros. The group hasn't sold a single power plant in the last seven years, and the Fukushima disaster looks to have had further impacts on demand for new reactors.

Third-generation nuclear reactors - so-called European Pressurized Reactors (EPR) - were initially considered a secure technology for the future and the flagship of the French nuclear industry. But even they have been fraught with problems.

Despite Royal's recent statement, recently passed legislation on renewable energy in France may be the most telling sign that the winds of change appear to be blowing - toward a nuclear phase-out.

Flamanville nuclear power plant in France, under construction (Photo: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)
The Flamanville nuclear power plant in France has been fraught with delay and now faces serious safety concernsImage: Getty Images/AFP/C. Triballeau

Technology of the future turns sour

Operational start of the Olkiluoto 3 EPR in Finland has been delayed from 2009 to 2018, and the Flamanville 3 reactor in France from 2012 to 2018. Construction costs for Flamanville 3 have exploded, from 3.3 to more than 10 billion euros.

A statement by French Environment Minister Segolene Royal pegging closure of the Fessenheim plant - France's oldest, on the border with Germany - raised the ire of environmentalists, and even provoked a statement of protest by German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks.

Hollande had initially promised Fessenheim's closure by May 2017 at the latest. The governing administration later retracted Royal's statement.

Two EPR reactors at the Hinkley Point nuclear facility in England have also been the focus of controversy, as construction costs are much higher than initially projected. Financing for completing the project has still not been secured.

Hinkley Point atomic plant in England (Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Some experts believe that the Hinkley Point nuclear facility will never be finishedImage: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

There is also the prospect of major safety issues. In mid-April it became known that there were weak points in the steel vessel that surrounds the reactor at the French Flamanville plant, which could lead to cracking under pressure.

The French Nuclear Safety Agency (ASN) called the situation "very serious," and has demanded a comprehensive report by October.

If the regulating authority judges the vessel unsafe, it would be a disaster for Areva. Replacing it would take several years and result in additional costs in the hundreds of millions of euros, experts say.

Yannick Rousselet, a nuclear energy expert at Greenpeace, says further delays would deal a death blow to the EPR project. Aside from the two European reactors, no EPR installation has been successfully completed - there are just two projects in China.

"Only a few years ago, Areva told us that worldwide it would be finalizing two to three reactors per year," Rousselet said. "The reality today is that the EPR as an industrial project is dead."

EDF steps in to save AREVA

The French state owns 86.5 percent of Areva and 84.5 percent of EPR, which is the world's second-largest electricity provider and a major nuclear power producer.

Areva's La Hague factory (Photo: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)
Experts say Areva couldn't have weathered its EPR problems without EDF stepping inImage: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

In an emergency meeting with President Francois Holland in June, it was agreed that EDF should buy in to Areva's reactor business.

"Without these measures, Areva wouldn't survive the year," said Mycle Schneider, editor of the World Nuclear Industry status report.

And according to Schneider, help for Areva doesn't spell an end French nuclear power's problems.

EDF is considerably larger than Areva, and has an annual turnover of 70 billion euros. But Schneider points out its also has 37.5 billion euros of debt. Schneider sees this mountain of debt as a central problem.

According to the Paris audit office, the company faces an additional 50 billion euros in costs for dismantling and disposal of nuclear waste.

From nuclear to renewables?

As nuclear energy faces these problems, winds of change appear to be blowing through the French energy system.

Marc Bussieras, head of EDF's economic strategy department, is open to energy production without nuclear. EDF's priority is a cost-effective strategy, he told DW.

"Today in France, there are economic reasons in favor of installing renewable energy capacity," Bussieras said.

Marc Bussieras
Marc Bussieras, head of strategy at EDF, said at a DW panel renewables make economic senseImage: DW

The French government is seeking to promote an energy transition through new legislation, which is also hoped to create jobs. The law, adopted in July 2015, states that the share of nuclear power in France's energy mix should be reduced from 75 percent today to 50 percent by 2025. The shortfall in power supply should primarily be covered by wind and solar.

According to a study commissioned by the national environmental agency (ADEME), a complete phase-out of nuclear power and switch to 100 percent renewable energy should be possibly - and economically viable - by 2050.

Momentum for transition

As Germany's nuclear phase-out has been clipping along due partly to environmental concerns, attitudes toward nucelar in France have historically been far more positive. Yet Sven Rösner from the German-French Agency for Renewable Energy in Paris sees a cultural shift among the public, politics and industry.

"For two years, a large political camp said that nuclear was the only clean, reliable, and affordable option," Rösner said. "And this year, those same people are saying that all solutions could be considered."

Schneider doesn't see a change of thinking in the nuclear industry itself. He says an awareness over the difficult future of building new nuclear power stations hasn't arrived to the minds of Areva's management.

But he sees other opportunities for the nuclear industry. "The future lies in the huge market for demolition and nuclear waste management," Schneider said. "New constructions will remain the exception."