The Beginning of the End for Nuclear Power in France
Romain Zissler, Researcher, Renewable Energy Institute
Rising costs, safety concerns, and political will are shaking the foundations of the French nuclear powerhouse.
For over thirty years now the large majority of French electricity has been produced from nuclear power. 1 And in 2016, nuclear power still accounted for 73% of France’s electricity generation. 2 Based on these first observations it is hard to imagine that we may currently be witnessing the early decline and inevitable fall of the almighty nuclear power industry in France, and yet…
In recent years, the combination of economic & technological challenges, safety concerns, and the new direction of national energy policies have all contributed to seriously weaken the – once believed to be unshakeable – foundations of nuclear power in France.
Over the decades, nuclear proponents asserted the dominance of nuclear power over the French electricity mix on two key historical arguments; economic competitiveness and energy security independency (the latter has always been questionable since uranium is imported). Note: the support of nuclear power as a tool against climate change only came in the years 2000s.
The economic competitiveness argument has always been the best-selling argument in favor of nuclear power in France with the widespread idea that nuclear provides electricity prices competitive for the industry and affordable for the households. This argument is, however, becoming increasingly irrelevant.
In January 2012, the French Cour des comptes – the supreme body for auditing the use of public funds in France – estimated the average generating cost of the existing nuclear fleet (not taking into account amortization) just below €50/megawatt-hour (MWh) (in 2010 euros) for 2010. 3 Then in May 2014, at about €60/MWh (in 2013 euros) for 2013. 4 And in February 2016, at €63/MWh (2013 euros) for 2014. 5
This roughly 20% cost increase between 2010 and 2014 (taking into account inflation) is due to a significant increase in maintenance investments, including implementation of stricter safety standards following Fukushima nuclear accident. 6 Taking inflation into account and assuming no further maintenance investments increase between and 2014 and 2016 this cost would be €69/MWh (2017 euros) for 2016 because of a drop in electricity generation from nuclear power as a result of safety concerns (described below). 7
In the meantime, wind and solar power costs significantly decreased according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. To the extent that they are now cost competitive with existing nuclear power (Table).
Table: Wind and Solar Power Cost Competitive with Nuclear Power in France
Notes: Inflation taken into account (i.e. all prices in 2017 euros). LCOE figures for onshore wind and solar PV for 2015-H1 converted from $ to € using the exchange rate $1 = €0.902.
Sources: For nuclear see endnotes 3 to 5, 7, and 8, International Energy Agency, Energy Policies of IEA Countries – France 2016 Review (January 2017), and Climate Action Network France, Energy Transition: End the Received Ideas (March 2017) (in French). And for onshore wind and solar PV, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, LCOE Time Series for France.
And it is very unlikely that new nuclear projects will ever be capable of competing with new solar and wind power as suggested by the disastrous Flamanville III project, plagued by major cost overruns and endless delays, which generation cost is estimated to be around €120/MWh – approximately double the price of new renewables. 8
This is the reason why the operator of all French 58 nuclear reactors (combined capacity of 63 gigawatts), heavily indebted Électricité de France (EDF) – net financial debt of €31 billion as of 30 June 2017, is rather targeting to extend the lifetime of its ageing reactors beyond 40 years (about 80% of the reactors have been connected to the grid for over 30 years and 40% over 35 years, as of 15 November 2017) than building new ones. 9 A goal, that will face financial, technical, and safety hurdles. For instance, from a financial point of view, the cost of the “Grand Carénage” program aiming at refurbishing the country’s nuclear fleet, enhancing reactor safety, and, if conditions allow, extending their operating lifespan is estimated to be €48 billion over the 2014-2025 period. 10
Moreover, more flexibility will be needed to integrate wind and solar power. Flexibility that nuclear power can provide to some extent from a technical point of view, but that will hurt its profitability further because of lower capacity factors and raising operating costs from increasing wear and tear due to more frequent and faster ramping up and down.
In addition to these unfavorable economic developments for nuclear power, safety concerns due to irregularities in quality-control documentation and manufacturing defects (excessive carbon content of steel in particular) of pieces produced by infamous AREVA’s Creusot Forge and sub-contractor Japan Casting & Forging Corporation, led to multiple reactor provisional shutdowns in 2016-2017 and triggered in 2016 the lowest annual capacity factor for nuclear power in France since the beginning of the century; 72.9%. 11 Quite low for a technology so often praised for its reliability.
As a result, France became a net importer of electricity for two consecutive months – this is quite exceptional – in December 2016 and January 2017. 12 And French hourly spot market electricity prices skyrocketed well over €800/MWh three times (up to €874/MWh) in November 2016. 13
These events demonstrated – in case it was needed – that the extraordinary addiction of France on nuclear power does not make it almighty, but rather vulnerable.
Finally, political will which has been crystallized by the French Energy Transition for Green Growth Law adopted in 2015, targets an ambitious reduction of nuclear power share in electricity generation to 50% by 2030-2035 (the original target year was 2025, but inaction in establishing a reactor closures roadmap, notably, resulted in the postponement of the target year, announced on 7 November 2017). 14 This reduced dependence on nuclear power was decided for a number of reasons among which diversification of energy sources, electricity cost reduction, and safety were prominent.
In light of these facts it is reasonable to conclude that even in France, a country never surpassed in terms of nuclear power reliance, where political consensus existed for decades, and large-scale social opposition has never really taken shape, the role of nuclear power is likely to be – for a number of good reasons – significantly less important in a medium-term future. In favor of energy efficiency and renewable energy. This message is worth to be shared beyond France’s borders and particularly in Japan where the nuclear debate is still quite open for discussions.