The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has disrupted the oil and natural gas supply in many countries and have made wake up of the necessity to grant security to the power production. The prices increases which have resulted from that have forced the States to adopt measures which were costly for their public finances to protect consumers and to permit the survival of enterprises, confronted with production and operating costs increases which they couldn’t pass on to their clients; The choice, consisting in betting on renewables to take over from fossil energies revealed itself wrong, Germany brought the proof. The recourse to nuclear then appeared in many countries as an essential element to cope with the double challenge consisted by the comeback of international tensions and the necessity to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions.
That change has been especially spectacular in France. The country has succeeded in building between 1975 and 1995 nuclear power production capacities allowing it both to securing its independence and to offering to household and enterprises prices favoring their purchasing power and their competitiveness. Successive governments after that, instead of taking profit from that advantage through supporting nuclear industry with new orders have, to the contrary, weakened the sector and imagined alternative solutions. The peak of the policy occurred with the closure of the Fessenheim power plant under the pressure of Germany which wanted to protect its coal mines, when the nuclear safety authority had renewed its operating authorization, and with the decision to bring down the nuclear share in the power mix to 50% in the future when it was, as an yearly average, around 70%.
Happily, after ten years of mistakes, the government has completely changed its policy after the increase of fossil energies prices due to the war in Ukraine and to the consequences of the plants stoppage after the discovery of corrosion phenomenon in 2022. The nuclear power plants production, which had reached 30.6 TWh in October 2021 fell to 20.2 TWh a year after before coming back in October 2023 to 28.3 TWh thanks to the progressive return to operation of the units which had been stopped. These technical difficulties had occurred at the worst time because electricity prices in Europe, indexed on natural gas ones, had known unprecedent increases. The EDF regulated tariff for household went from 0.1193€ per KWh in October 2021 to 0.204€ in October 2023. The State then had softened the consequences with the effects of the tariff shield and through the reduction of the different taxes and contributions which were added to the price of the produced electricity.
France even became for the first time a net electricity importer in 2022 with a 16 TWh deficit when the country was traditionally an exporter sometimes until 70 TWh. The putting back into operation of the plants since last Spring has allowed to recovering a positive foreign trade balance. It has reached during the last known three months near 16 TWh, i.e. a level close to the one observed before the crisis. Happily, the government has taken the lessons of the past mistakes and has made a 180° turnaround in renouncing to fix as an objective the reduction of the nuclear share in the power mix and in announcing a program of construction of six power plants which could be increased to twelve in the future. The first contracts and the recruitments have just occurred on the Penly site, in Normandy, which has been chosen for the first of these units.
France is not isolated in its choices, quite the contrary. The European Union has just softened its past policy. It doesn’t anymore exclude, as a principle, nuclear in its “taxonomy”, it is to say in the definition of the investments which can be supported to proceed to the reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions. The COP 28, which is currently in meeting in Dubai will not mention the end of the production and of the utilization of the fossil fuels but the agreement could include the nuclear power production inside the policies to put in place to reach the objectives regarding the reduction of the emissions to limit at 1.5° the planet warming. In the same time, twenty countries including France and ten members of the EU have signed an agreement asking to multiply by three the world nuclear power production capacity.
In many countries, as in France, it has been decided to build new plants. There are currently 411 reactors in operation, the United States and France with respectively 61 and 56 units at their disposal are the two largest producers with China behind with 54 units. There are atop of that 58 units under construction, among them 20 in China and 8 in India, which is reassuring because the first one became the biggest emitter of CO2 in the world and the second one is near to become the second one. New states, notably Turkey and Bangladesh, have chosen to adopt this production mode and the trend is accelerating with the emergence of several new other projects in Europe and in Asia.
In Brussels, under Germany pressure, the insertion of nuclear among the investments in favor of the energy transition had been blocked for a long time. The situation is changing with the war in Ukraine and the sanctions adopted against Russia. The reduction of the natural gas exports has been revealing. Renewables cannot constitute the only answer to de-carbonize the economy for two reasons: they are intermittent and power plants able to produce at any moment are indispensable. With the hydroelectric dams, the nuclear power plants are the only ones which do not emit CO2 and which are able to do it. And wind farms and solar panels are not located where is the demand. Huge investments must be done in the networks and in distribution but they frequently are confronted with the hostility of the concerned populations.
These two factors which heavily weight on the costs, must be taken into calculation when it is evocated the renewables competitiveness. In the same time the technology put forward to capture carbon and to reinject it bring only a derisory contribution to the reduction of the coal power plants emissions. Nuclear production, along with the separation between growth and the fossil energies consumption, so well contributes, at least partly, to the achievement of the energy transition objectives. Recent decisions by these countries including France, take into account these realities. But the effort to make will be huge because achievements delays are long and the construction of the plants needs the recourse to a highly-qualified workforce and especially prepared to that kind of works.
A major turnaround has just arrived. France has, at its disposable, the winning cards to take profit from it despite the two lost decades due to the pressure of unresponsible politicians. The State must so permanently convince about its commitment and the irreversible character of its choices in order to attracting the indispensable know-how to achieve that project. The public operator will take from it the necessary credibility in order to finance its investments and to export its know-how to foreign operators which, in their countries, will have the duty to build new nuclear power plants.