Will France Give Up Its Role as a Nuclear Powerhouse?
By Peter Fairley
A council appointed by French President François Hollande is kicking off a government-sponsored nationwide debate that could shift France’s energy system from nuclear to renewable energy. It is a dramatic development in light of France’s outsized investment in nuclear energy: the country produces more nuclear energy than any country other than the United States, and it relies on reactors for more than three-quarters of its power generation, a higher rate than any other country.
In the short term, energy experts expect limited impact within France and in the global market. Given its heavy reliance on nuclear power, the country cannot rapidly phase out its reactors the way Germany plans to. And the country, once viewed as the model for a U.S. nuclear renaissance, has lost its leadership role to global competitors. “The new leaders in nuclear expansion globally are the Chinese and Koreans,” says Andrew Kadak, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. Over the long haul, however, experts such as Kadak predict that a future France that abandons nuclear would impoverish global nuclear R&D.
During his election campaign last year, Hollande called to reduce nuclear to 50 percent of France’s power supply by 2025. If the national debate affirms a reduction of that magnitude, the new reactor in Normandy that state-owned utility Electricité de France (EDF) expects to fire up in 2016 could be its last.
“France’s reduced backing for nuclear will certainly be a blow to nuclear power’s reputation,” says Chi-Jen Yang, an expert in technology policy at Duke University’s Center on Global Change. However, Yang, Kadak, and other experts agree that the big loser will be France, which is likely to experience a reduced capacity to export its own technology: the third-generation European Pressurized Reactor design developed by French nuclear technology firm Areva —the same design that EDF is using.
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