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AB 2000 studies

Alain Boublil Blog


France and the nuclear power production

The nuclear power production has successively been, in France, a model of its national proudness and its economic success, a threat on environment and, at last, after decades of criticism and hesitations, an essential contribution to the recovery of its financial balances and its fight against climate warming. The country, finally, has renounced to what was one of its habits: to denigrate everything which is well working before complaining about everything which does not provide satisfaction to it.

It must have been the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the sanctions against the country natural gas exports and the consequences of the failure of the German energy policy to become aware of the strategic role of nuclear in the national power mix, of the fatal consequences of the lost decades with all its financial repercussions that was generating and the efforts to be achieved to recover all the benefits which had been lost due to these mistakes.

The long period without any orders had weakened the production apparel of the industry from the concrete pouring to the precise mechanical engineering allowing the manufacturing of the reactors components. The increase of the works duration at the Flamanville nuclear power plant and the costs rises which have resulted from it, have been its direct consequence. But that costs drift has also heavily weighted on the public decisions: nuclear wouldn’t be anymore competitive and now it might orient the policy toward renewables. The choice made from 2012 to reduce the share of the nuclear production to 50% in the power mix was the consequence of that.

The European context, largely influenced by Germany pressures which wanted, without saying it, to protect its coal production, has even weakened the France capacities. EDF was going to be obliged to sale to its competitors at a price largely inferior to market one the power produced in its nuclear power plants following the European rules, which would deprive it of the financial resources necessary to its investments dedicated to the life extension of its existing plants and to the construction of new units. As a symbol of the France renouncement, the closing of the Fessenheim power plant was even more depriving the country of profitable and safe capacities since the Safety Authority had delivered the necessary authorizations for its exploitation.

So was the economic and technical context at the eve of the Ukraine invasion by Russia which was going to disrupt the electricity European market and to make the government  conscious of its past mistakes. Two factors hurt the power production. In Germany the brutal reduction of the Russian natural gas imports after the sanctions adopted against Moscow and their replacement by liquefied natural gas coming from Middle-East and the United States generated price increases.

In the same time a corrosion phenomenon affected several French nuclear power plants and significantly reduced production capacities at a moment when an other portion of the nuclear plants was to be stopped in order to realize the necessary investments to increase above 40 years their life duration or to proceed to the usual maintenance operations. During 2022 Summer, about 40% of the EDF nuclear production capacity was not anymore able to satisfy demand. It was followed by an unprecedent rapid rise of the electricity prices on the European market, open to weight on household purchasing power and on enterprises competitiveness.

The State, then, took measures to soften the consequences of the price rapid rises through the suspension of the tax on electricity supply and through a the large reduction of the tax on the electricity public service. The kwh price in the regulated market went, between December 2021 and December 2023 from 0.1193€ to 0.20240€, i.e. a near double; and the cost for the public finances of these supports has represented for two years several tens of billion euro.

The reasoning according to which renewables could offset the fall of the nuclear production has so been invalidated: hydraulic production, due to a hot and dry 2022 Summer has not been able to meet demand and wind farms as solar panels were to much intermittent and the locations where they were located were not always connected to the networks where demand was strong. From November 2021, thermal power plants production had to start to compensate the nuclear production fall and France became a net electricity importer.

In 2021, despite the production diminution at the end of the year, the power trade balance was still above 50 TWh. In 2022, the deficit reached 15 TWh. The putting back into operation of the plants in 2023 has allowed to regaining a surplus near 50 TWh, which has contributed to reduce the trade balance deficit by 3 billion euro. The  nuclear power production share has reached this year 65% and fossil fuels only 6.6%. This trend is increasing in 2024 thanks to the mild weather which has allowed to significantly reducing power consumption and an export rebound.

France economic policy orientations are focused on several objectives: the reindustrialization, the reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions, the recovery of the public accounts and the reduction of the foreign trade deficit. The progressive exit from fossil fuels can only be accomplished if there is a growing electrification of the production and consumption modes. It is without any sense to offer important subventions in favor of electric vehicles if the power needed to recharging them comes from gas or coal power plants. The digitalization of enterprises as of individual daily life is also based on an increasing power consumption. The power mix so constitutes a determining factor for the achievements of these objectives.

The different crisis occurred these last two years have showed for the best and for the worst to which point the nuclear power production was able to satisfy all these objectives in the same time. The short reduction of the capacities has leaded to prices increases the State had to compensate with costly measures, to an increase of the fossil fuels imports and to an increase of the foreign trade deficit and so to an uncertainty about the country energy safety. To the opposite, the reestablishment of the plants operating has immediately allowed to regaining better conditions for energy supply and progressively better costs favoring purchasing power and enterprises competitiveness. It suits to take the lessons of this succession of events.

In 2022, the government has decided a full change of course in favor of the nuclear energy, putting an end to a quarter of a century of mistakes. It was absurd to oppose this production mode to renewables because due to their intermittent character, these two modes are complementary. We must be satisfied by this turnaround but it is not enough. It is indispensable, if we want to avoid the coming back to the past mistakes, to explain which contribution this power production technic brings to the supply safety, to the country economic and social prosperity and to the achievements of the objectives regarding environment. If not, the risk is real that we see a return of the anti-nuclear contestation which will put a doubt on the futures commitments which are indispensables to the achievements of investments which need important and guaranteed financings.