French Government in the Process of Decreasing its Dependence on Nuclear Energy

French Government in the Process of Decreasing its Dependence on Nuclear Energy

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard France Country Manager Astrid Nouvellet

France has a long history of relying heavily on nuclear power. The petrol crash of 1973 led the government to build sixteen 900 MWe reactors, followed by another twenty reactors of 1300 MWe from 1976 onwards, to ensure the country’s energy security. The next expansion occurred at the turn of the century with the construction of four additional 1450 MWe reactors between 1996 and 2000, and the 3rd gen European pressurized reactor of Flamanville (1650 MWe), for which the project was started in 1990. The latter was scheduled to start its operations at the end of 2018, but is still undergoing additional testing and improvements; it should reach full capacity this year. The EDF (électricité de France) group manages the 5658 nuclear reactors that generate the majority of the country’s energy (70.9% in 2019). The reactors are grouped in 19 locations across the country.

While historical dependence on nuclear is large and seen by President Macron as France’s sole asset in the fight against climate change, the government is actively phasing out its use. In 2017, the government set a goal to reduce the proportion of nuclear power in France’s energy mix from 75% to 50% by 2025, whilst encouraging the development of renewable energies through the “Plan Climat”. This has already resulted in the closing down of Fessenheim’s two reactors, for which the dismantling is scheduled to be authorised by decree in 2025 and to take until 2041.

France’s nuclear activities must abide by the country’s Public Health Code and are regulated through a heavy corpus of international, European, and national regulations. The Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) is ultimately the entity checking the safety of the plants, which are themselves operated by the électricité de France (EDF). The Authority performs over 450 yearly checks in addition to internal checks.

The safety of nuclear reactors is ensured at the development and operational levels through numerous measures. Reactors are built according to high standards to minimize accidents and ensure the radioactive material is properly stored. Additionally, numerous controls are put in place to prevent and react to any accidents by shutting down the plant if any anomaly is detected. In response to the Fukushima accident, Complementary Safety Evaluations were made upon the request of the Nuclear Safety Authority on five main risks: flooding, earthquakes, loss of electricity input, loss of water source, and major accident management. The Rapid Action Nuclear Taskforce was also created by EDF to be able to respond within 24 hours and restore or ensure the sustainability of the cooling of reactors, so as to avoid core fusion and any significant rejects.

In France, nuclear waste is mapped and managed by the national agency for radioactive waste management (“Agence Nationale pour la gestion des Déchets Radioactifs”, ANDRA). For electricity production alone, according to EDF, less than 2 kgs of radioactive waste is produced per year per inhabitant. In comparison to this, France produces 100kg of non-radioactive, but highly toxic, waste annually per inhabitant. The waste is processed and treated to different standards based on its radioactivity levels as can be seen below.

Super short-life nuclear waste (<100 days)“Short life” waste (≤31 years)“Long life” waste (>31 years)
Hundreds Bq.g-1Very Small activityManagement by onsite radioactive reduction on the production site
followed by its elimination through normal waste storage and disposal means
Dedicated surface recycling or storage
Millions Bq.g-1Small activitySurface storageLow depth storage (being studied following the June 28th 2006 law)
Billions Bq.g-1Medium activity
High activityN/A (inexistant)Storage in “deep geologic layer” (in project since the 2006 law)

France has a long and deep relationship with nuclear energy with robust policies and regulations to govern the industry. As a result, there has never been a severe and large-scale nuclear accident in France. While the government is in the process of decreasing its dependence on nuclear to further the renewable transition, France currently remains heavily reliant upon nuclear energy.

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