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France bets €1bn on startups building bus-sized nuclear reactors to fight climate change

After years of playing defence, the nation’s nuclear industry is seizing its startup moment

After years of trying to reduce its dependence on nuclear power, France has radically changed its tune, betting heavily on the sector to help reach its climate goals.

The French government has committed €1bn as part of its France 2030 plan to support nuclear projects and startups developing small nuclear reactor technology.

It wants startups to address the legacy issues that have soured many Europeans on nuclear power by reducing the volumes and radioactivity of waste, increasing the ability to recycle nuclear material, enhancing safety and security, and developing financing models for more rapid deployment.

But after more than a decade of playing defence as politicians focused on shutting down nuclear reactors, the industry needs to re-establish its image and build momentum. While €1bn sounds like a lot of money, nuclear startups have a long way to go and will need to raise a lot more cash in the coming years.

“Having this backing from the state ultimately reinforces the seriousness of the programme,” says Christophe Neugnot of the French nuclear industry association GIFEN. “What [nuclear startups] expect from the state is continuity, […] that the state supports [them].”

Nuclear whiplash

France produces the third most power from nuclear reactors in the world, trailing the United States and China, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. But France currently gets 62.5% of its energy from nuclear, the highest percentage in the world.

President Emmanuel Macron inherited a law that called for reducing France’s nuclear energy dependence from 75% to 50% by decommissioning nuclear power plants and replacing them with alternative sources such as solar, wind and hydro.

But by early 2022, with natural gas prices soaring, the war in Ukraine disrupting energy supplies and mounting anxiety over climate change, Macron opted to go the other way, approving the development of six new nuclear reactors in France.

In December 2023, Macron lamented that the government had been blocked for a decade on nuclear power.

“Things have completely changed,” he said.

The six new reactors will be built and managed by French utility giant EDF, and the government has set aside €42m to recruit and train 100k workers in the nuclear sector over the next decade.

But startups will play a role too: the government has already selected eight that will receive €102.1m in financing.

One of the most advanced startups in the cohort is Jimmy Energy, founded in 2020, which raised €20m before receiving €32m from the French government last year.

Jimmy cofounder Antoine Guyot explains that the company is using older nuclear fission technology to develop micro-reactors (SMRs) that connect directly to existing industrial facilities.

The heat generated by these reactors will be less expensive than using fossil fuels, he says.

The government cash has allowed the company to solve its supply-chain issues when it comes to manufacturing smaller components.

For Guyot, the new focus on nuclear energy is overdue.

“We are a very nuclear country,” he tells Sifted. But it wasn’t always like that, he adds:

“When we started everybody said I was crazy. But every engineer in France knows that it is the key to decarbonization. “It was logical that a new age would come. We are lucky.”

Source: Sifted