Standing against the backdrop of the massive 300-ton Arabelle turbine, Emmanuel Macron heralded the “renaissance” of French nuclear power. At the General Electric (GE) factory in the Alsatian town of Belfort, the French president unveiled last month his plan for the French “new nuclear”: the construction of six large EPR 2 reactors and studies to analyze the feasibility of eight additional , in addition to lengthening the useful life of “all the reactors that can be extended”. “Our goal is for construction to start in 2028 and for the first reactor to come online in 2035,” he said.
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The announcement marks a change of direction for French energy policy. Macron himself had declared in 2018 his ambition to “reduce the share of nuclear energy in the French energy mix to 50%”, a commitment inherited from François Hollande.
“The reality is that France relies heavily on nuclear power, which generates around 70% of its electricity, a choice that dates back to the 1970s and that distinguishes us from other countries such as Germany or Spain,” explains Stéphanie Tillement, sociologist at the École Nationale Supérieure Mines-Télécom Atlantique and associate researcher at the University of Nantes.
The problem is that the French nuclear park (56 reactors in total) is ageing, many installations are close to or exceed 40 years and in the coming decades they will reach the end of their useful life. That means the time is coming to make a decision about your future. “For years, governments have avoided making a clear statement on nuclear policy,” says Tillement: “It’s now that it’s starting to show that we’re not going to get out.”
This nuclear shift announced by the French Government is enabled by the new regulatory framework of the European Commission on taxonomy, a classification of sustainable activities carried out with the aim of directing private investment towards sectors that contribute to reducing greenhouse gases. After multiple negotiations, the EU ended up including nuclear energy, under certain conditions, in the fight against global warming. This means that investments in this type of energy generation will benefit from the ‘green’ label to finance plant modernization works until 2040 or the construction of authorized third-generation reactors before 2045.
The objectives to achieve carbon neutrality, together with the increase in energy prices and Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, are the arguments used to relaunch nuclear power. In addition, there is an additional reason, which has a lot to do with the electoral campaign and the vision of the future of the current French head of state: the promise of reindustrialization of the French territory. It is an important sector in the French economy, on which some 200,000 jobs depend right now. “There is a whole industrial fabric behind it,” says Tillement. “In addition, it is a particular ecosystem that depends on very few very powerful actors, with a lot of strength of lobbying“, observes the researcher.
The scenario chosen by Macron for his announcement is significant: Belfort is one of the areas most affected by the sale in 2015 of the French energy branch Alstom to the American multinational General Electric (GE). Now, the public company Électricité de France (EDF) has just announced an agreement to acquire a part of GE Steam Power, in particular the one that produces the aforementioned Arabelle turbines. Last October, Macron already raised the idea of an investment of 1,000 million euros to boost the production of small modular SMR reactors, largely destined for export to the Asian market. “In a context of reindustrialization, it is difficult for a president to say that he is going to leave an industry that is technically dominated and in which so much has been invested,” says Tillement.
An “undemocratic” decision for environmentalists
On the other hand, Macron has given his commitment to energy sovereignty a touch of nostalgia, with references to “the vision of General De Gaulle, amplified by President Pompidou” and to the France of les trente Glorieuses (the three decades of economic growth from the end of World War II in 1945 to the oil shocks). A way to step on the ground to the far right candidatesboth pronuclear and pronostalgia.
Nuclear opponents, for their part, immediately denounced a decision “out of touch with reality” and “undemocratic”. “These statements are not those of a president concerned about the climate emergency and the energy transition, but those of a president campaigning for re-election,” charged Greenpeace it’s a statement. “Emmanuel Macron tries to mark the political agenda by participating in the bid of the candidates of the right and extreme right to see who is more in favor of nuclear energy.”
The environmental association pointed out that the only plant project currently under construction, in Flamanville (department of La Mancha), continues to accumulate delays and cost overruns. They also underline the security and waste management risks, given that a large part of the storage facilities are reaching their maximum capacity and the projects for new nuclear cemeteries are facing significant social protest.
“France is the only country in Europe that does not achieve its own goals development of renewable energies and the Government has not fulfilled its commitments to thermal renewal”, recalled Greenpeace. “At a time of environmental and climate emergency, Emmanuel Macron tragically ends five years of environmental inaction by betting on obsolete and dangerous energy against the tide of history and international trends”.
Opposition from the left
Along the same lines, most left-wing candidates almost unanimously oppose this new turn to keep the nuclear sector alive. The environmentalist, Yannick Jadot, denounced in a forum in Le Monde an “irrational bet”. “Instead of betting on sobriety and renewable energies, it condemns France to energy addiction and the increase in the electricity bill,” said the MEP.
Despite the criticism, the president wanted to apply his usual strategy of et en même temps (and at the same time) to nuclear politics with some nods to the progressive electorate. Macron has assured that, to meet the triple objective that has been set (energy independence, compliance with climate commitments and control of costs for consumers), nuclear energy and the commitment to renewables will not be enough: it is also necessary ” gain sobriety” and “in the next 30 years, be able to reduce energy consumption by 40%”. That yes, clarifies the president, it is not about “degrowth” or “deprivation” but about a challenge that will be overcome with “innovation”.