Nuclear industry runs with very long cycles to the opposite of other economic activities. After the war and despite twenty years of efforts, it appeared that French nuclear paths did not answer to the expectations and, in 1974, Messmer government put in competition the two American nuclear leaders, General Electric and Westinghouse, the first one with the boiling water technology and the second one with pressurized water. The last one won and Framatome chose it for its nuclear reactors. During twenty years, nuclear industry enjoyed a state of grace. 58 reactors were built and are still operating. French households took advantage of the cheapest power in Europe, our enterprises saw their production costs falling and France reduced its energy bill and its CO2 emissions.
This “Golden age” became the object of scathing critics. France was qualified as the Europe “nuclear water tower” because our power stations provided its neighbors with electricity. Then a new twenty five years period started during which that activity went through a deep crisis. Power capacities did not justify new reactors in France. But Tchernobyl catastrophe had incited the industry to design power plants whose safety was protected against human errors. Framatome and Siemens, allied to achieve this project, designed the EPR which fulfilled that constraint. In the same time, in order to reduce the amount of radioactive wastes coming from the nuclear fuel after its utilization, France tried to put in activity the breeder reactor. But tests revealed that its design carried major defaults and the program was stopped. That decision was interpreted as a first success of these who opposed the nuclear industry. Worries about climate warming were not present and the advantage offered by the reduction of CO2 emissions was not put forward by the protectors of environment.
The lack of new orders put the industry into crisis and incited enterprises to look at foreign customers. Areva, born from the merger of the nuclear island builder, Framatome, and COGEMA which was producing the fuel, did run for the building of an EPR in Finland. Unfortunately, the company was not qualified for being the manager of the full project. That role was assumed in France in the past by EDF, and the client, TVO, proposed by Siemens which was, for a long period its favored provider of turbines, was not more qualified. That decision was for two reasons unfortunate. It dissuaded the state to authorize EDF to build an EPR in France which aggravated the lack of know-how resulting from the going into retirement of the qualified employees, produced during the “Golden age”. The second consequenc was heavy losses which are even today weighting on the image of the nuclear industry. It will be necessary to wait until 2007, fifteen years after the last order in France, for the decision to launch the Flamanville power plant, whose delays and cost overruns are today also the consequences of such a long period of inactivity.
In the same time, the debate about climate warming was becoming more intense and the proposed solutions to reduce CO2 emissions went from the search of energy savings in transport and housing to the development of renewable. But the first ones produce effects slowly when urgency is declared and the second are, by nature, intermittent and unable to guarantee supply security. The peak of that period came with the vote of a bill including both a ceiling for nuclear power capacities and a 50% limit for the”2025 horizon” of the share of nuclear power production. Nobody then dared to ask what would happen if, for a reason or another, the other power capacities were not able to satisfy demand. Would it be necessary to cut power supply to French people to enforce the law? The appointment of a minister who qualified nuclear as madness was in keeping with that logic but his resignation, by large motivated by the postponement to 2035 of the 50% rule, shows the end of an era.
Along with that, the industry is experiencing a full revival. Comurhex 2, the Orano natural uranium transformation plant is going into activity. EDF has ordered a new technology for the retreatment of its fuel and the first EPR built in China at Taishan has just been connected to the network. At last and mainly, in France, the violence of the attacks against the nuclear industry has stopped with Nicolas Hulot departure and it is acknowledged that, once Flamanville is operational, a decision will be taken regarding the construction of the next reactors. It is a 180° turnaround which indicates the end of “the end of nuclear”. But the newest points regard the coming back into competitiveness of the nuclear plants and its essential complementary place with renewable energies.
After two difficult years, the availability rate of the French nuclear plants rebounded. That has allowed a significant rise of the production at a moment when special climatic conditions penalized the production of the wind farms built in Germany and in France. The KWh prices rise was as spectacular as the increase of the french power trade surplus which went from 823 to 1324 million euro from one semester to the following one. The hot wave occurred this summer should amplify the rebound because if it is favorable to solar panels, it has heavily penalized wind turbines. When heat wave is there, there is no wind. In that case, the only alternative to nuclear are fossil fuels and notably brown coal which is widely used in Germany.
But the rebound of carbon credits prices, from 7 euro as an average to near 25 euro today, will hurt coal power plants and support French power exports. Then, obviousness will appear: the best way to comply with European commitments regarding the reduction of green house emissions will be to bet on the complementary role between nuclear and renewable energies. In France, in July, wind farms produced only one TWh, i.e. 2.6% of the power production and 35% less than in 2017. Nuclear was 6% up, which allowed to cope with the wind farms failure and to increase our trade surplus by 37%, which reached 6.2TWh this month.
The debate about the competitiveness of the nuclear is distorted on two issues. Low sophisticated equipments with unpredictable life duration are compared with a new sophisticated one whose amortization duration is 60 years. A top of that it is forgotten that anyway, it will be necessary to have such equipment, even if it is not in activity to guarantee, as in July, the power supply safety. It should be necessary to include in the calculus of the price offered by solar and wind energies, that constraint which carries a very high cost until storage technologies for very big volumes have been mastered, which is not for tomorrow.
Everything is combining to a rebound of the trust in nuclear, after such a long cycle of problems and to offer to our country an energy which doesn’t emit CO2, whose technology is mastered by our enterprises and which contributes to the reduction of our energy bill. At a time when growth is slow in France, unemployment is staying at a high level and the trade deficit is too heavy, to give to the nuclear rebound all its chances is an opportunity which must not be neglected.
Environment, how many mistakes have been made under you name, from the support of diesel to the organization of traffic jams, including the tolerance regarding coal power plants! Isn’t time to come back to reason?