Making a commitment to build six new EPRs in France would be an “effective stimulus” for the country’s economy as it recovers in the years ahead from the shock of COVID-19, the French nuclear energy society (SFEN) wrote in a position paper published this week. Nuclear energy “ticks all three boxes” highlighted in the debate about the recovery – that investments should be in low-carbon, resilient and sovereign industries, it said.
France has 57 reactors that supply round-the-clock low-carbon electricity to more than three-quarters of the country’s population and more than 250 of its industrial energy users at 530 sites, SFEN noted in its position paper. By providing “stable electricity at moderate prices”, nuclear power contributes to the competitiveness of French industry, it added.
Invest to grow
EDF’s maintenance and investment programme, known as the Grand Carénage, injects EUR4 billion (USD4.3 billion) a year into extending the operation of its existing nuclear fleet, but the post-virus recovery must support new reactor construction, SFEN said.
In January this year, the French environment ministry opened for public consultation its revised strategy document for managing the energy transition – programmation pluriannuelle de l’énergie – covering the period 2019-2028.
“The launch of a programme to build new nuclear reactors would be an effective tool for economic and social recovery from 2021,” SFEN wrote, adding that the nuclear industry is “ready to mobilise” as part of that effort.
It referred to a recent study by Deloitte in France that said every euro invested in nuclear power generates EUR2.5 in the rest of the economy. The same study estimates that by 2030 every terawatt hour produced by nuclear energy will contribute EUR360 million to the national GDP, which is more than three times wind power’s contribution of EUR100 million. French nuclear power is already competitive in a European comparison, SFEN added. Last year, household electricity prices were more than 70% higher in Germany, which is phasing out nuclear power, than in France.
The construction of “at least” three pairs of EPRs at three sites would enable the renewal of 10 GWe, or 15%, of the current French fleet. To date, the Normandy (Penly site), Hauts de France (Gravelines site) and Auvergne Rhône-Alpes (several current sites) regions have volunteered to host these projects. The total annual investment required would be EUR2 billion per year, which contrasts with the estimated support for renewable energy of more than EUR5 billion annually.
“The prospect of a major construction programme over 20 years, and the establishment of framework contracts with a number of manufacturers, would provide the necessary visibility for companies in the sector to invest from 2021 in the industrial tools and the skills necessary,” it said.
As France’s third-largest industrial sector, the nuclear industry provides more than 220,000 direct and indirect jobs. French companies account for 80% of personnel involved in the construction of an EPR in France, which SFEN says is “very high” compared to other energy sectors. For wind and solar technologies, for example, France “remains dependent on foreign players”.
An EPR project creates 8350 jobs in the construction phase and 1600 other positions continuously over the 60-year operating life of a unit, SFEN said. Investment in the nuclear power industry has a positive impact on the SMEs and mid-cap companies, which also work for other major industrial sectors, and produces a total cumulative turnover of around EUR47.5 billion, it added.
A decision next year on a new-build programme is needed “to consolidate the skills and strengthen the competitiveness” of the nuclear industry, it said. The erosion of the nuclear energy workforce across Europe in the last two decades owing to a lack of new-build projects, meant that France had “to reconstruct the entire industrial chain” to build Flamanville unit 3 in France and Olkiluoto unit 3 in Finland. Thanks to these projects, however, EDF and Framatome have qualified more than 600 suppliers of equipment and services at ‘nuclear-grade’ level.
France has a proven Generation 3 reactor design, SFEN added, since two EPRs are in commercial operation at Taishan, in China, and Flamanville-3 has successfully completed hot tests. EDF is working on “a simplified and optimised” EPR design – the EPR2 – which is being assessed by the French nuclear safety authority (Autorité de sûreté nucléaire).
The renewal of part of the country’s nuclear fleet is essential to achieving the French and European 2050 net-zero carbon goals, SFEN said.
Last month, the High Council for the Climate (le Haut conseil pour le climat) said that, “in order to respond to the economic, social and financial shock that is looming, the end of the crisis and the recovery must integrate the climate emergency”. It also said that investments must be directed inter alia towards “resilient infrastructures favouring low-carbon uses” and that infrastructure and long-term transition jobs must be the main beneficiaries of new investment.
France’s electricity generation sector is already low carbon: Its CO2 emissions are on average less than 50g/kWh, which SFEN said is “well below” those of its neighbours (around 400g/kWh in Germany and 260g/kWh in Italy, for example). This is thanks “in large part” to its nuclear fleet, combined with renewables (hydro, solar photovoltaic and wind).
Nuclear energy is one of the technologies that helped “decouple growth from emissions”, it said. Between 1980 and 1985, France saw a 20% fall in its CO2 emissions in spite of GDP growth of 8%. In the 10 years that followed the commissioning of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant, France had succeeded in bringing down the share of fossil fuels in its electricity production from 55% to 10% – thanks to its nuclear power programme, it added.
“For low-carbon electricity fully to play its role of decarbonisation over time, France must immediately launch a new nuclear construction programme. By 2050, the vast majority of our current nuclear reactors will have reached 60 years of age, with a possible ‘cliff-edge effect’ in the early 2040s, linked to the very rapid pace of construction of the fleet in the 1980s.
“Even if technical and economic progress is expected by 2030-2050, we don’t currently know the feasibility, robustness, cost or limits of a system that combines intermittent renewable energies, storage, biogas, and/or fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage. To date, the major international institutions believe that all low-carbon technologies – renewables, nuclear and CCS – must be implemented to achieve a deep decarbonisation of the electricity sector by 2050. It is difficult to see why it would be otherwise in France, which is a world reference for the use and industrial control of nuclear technology,” SFEN said.
The delay to – or absence of – a decision on the launch of nuclear new build exposes France to the risk of having to launch urgently the construction of new gas-fired power plants, which emit a lot of greenhouse gases. This has recently been the case in Japan, which has seen a too slow restart of its nuclear power plants, and in the USA – in New Jersey and in New York State – and might soon also be the case in Belgium, SFEN said.
According to the European Commission’s EUCO30 decarbonisation scenarios, the EU will need 110 GWe of nuclear power in 2050, including 70 GWe outside France, to achieve its climate objectives, it added.
The renewal of the French nuclear fleet is needed to guarantee the resilience of the country’s electricity system against future shocks, SFEN said, adding that, resilience means both “robustness” to cope with an unforeseen event, such as a global pandemic, and “agility” to adapt its organisation.
The country’s nuclear plants have supported the healthcare sector with “solidity and flexibility” in electricity supply. “Throughout the period, the nuclear fleet has been able to constantly adjust its production according to variations in demand and the production of renewable energies. For example, during the last weekend of March 2020, the power of the nuclear fleet varied by 14 GWe (out of 40 GWe of nuclear capacity available at the time), mainly in response to the variability of solar photovoltaic and wind energy in France and our neighbours,” SFEN said.
The International Energy Agency has highlighted the fact that nuclear energy has been “one of the main sources of flexibility” in Europe, SFEN said. “This remarkable (and often overlooked) capacity makes it an ally of renewable energies,” it added.
Nuclear energy is “the pillar of French energy sovereignty”, SFEN said. It has allowed – and still allows – France to protect itself from the vagaries of world energy markets: oil shocks and counter-shocks; development of shale gas and oil; and the geopolitics of gas. In the 1970, two-thirds of French electricity was produced using fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), but thanks to nuclear power, today this share is just 7%, it said. Moreover, France imports almost all of the hydrocarbons it consumes (in transport and housing).
The cost of producing nuclear electricity is “very predictable” because its fuel – uranium – represents just 5% of total production costs, it said. Also, the uranium market is different to markets for other fuels since the geopolitical risks are low – more than 40% of current uranium reserves are in OECD countries, and the majority of trade is done through long-term contracts, of several decades in duration.
France itself has an “extremely robust” uranium supply chain, SFEN said, adding that EDF has sufficient uranium in France for two years of electricity production. That contrasts with fossil fuel reserves, which covers fewer than six months of French annual consumption. France is also reducing its need for natural uranium by recycling its used fuel; 10% of French nuclear electricity is produced this way. Finally, France has a strategic stock of depleted uranium which can be substituted “at any time” for five years of natural uranium consumption by using modern domestic conversion and enrichment capacities, it said.
“EDF, the leading operator of nuclear power plants in the world, is recognised and sought after by its peers (China, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, etc.) for its experience in both operation and safety. This is also the case for Orano in the fuel cycle and Framatome in the manufacturing of control systems and components. More than 50% of companies in the sector are involved in exports and the industry as a whole exports around EUR5 billion in goods and services each year,” SFEN said.
But France has not yet been able to build Generation 3 reactors in series, owing to the lack of an industrial programme, SFEN said. This is in contrast to, for example, Russia’s Rosatom, which has commissioned 15 new reactor units over the past 14 years, and has around 30 projects in progress.