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Sustainable Energy

Will France Give Up Its Role as a Nuclear Powerhouse?

The country, which gets most of its electricity from nuclear power, is debating whether to wean itself from that dependency.

France is the world’s second-largest producer of nuclear energy and a leading innovator in the technology.

A council appointed by French President François Hollande is kicking off a government-sponsored nationwide debate that could shift France’s energy system from nuclear to renewable energy. It is a dramatic development in light of France’s outsized investment in nuclear energy: the country produces more nuclear energy than any country other than the United States, and it relies on reactors for more than three-quarters of its power generation, a higher rate than any other country.

New nukes: A nuclear plant in Flamanville, in northwestern France, uses Areva’s EPR design, its third-generation nuclear technology.

In the short term, energy experts expect limited impact within France and in the global market. Given its heavy reliance on nuclear power, the country cannot rapidly phase out its reactors the way Germany plans to. And the country, once viewed as the model for a U.S. nuclear renaissance, has lost its leadership role to global competitors. “The new leaders in nuclear expansion globally are the Chinese and Koreans,” says Andrew Kadak, a professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT. Over the long haul, however, experts such as Kadak predict that a future France that abandons nuclear would impoverish global nuclear R&D.

During his election campaign last year, Hollande called to reduce nuclear to 50 percent of France’s power supply by 2025. If the national debate affirms a reduction of that magnitude, the new reactor in Normandy that state-owned utility Electricité de France (EDF) expects to fire up in 2016 could be its last.

“France’s reduced backing for nuclear will certainly be a blow to nuclear power’s reputation,” says Chi-Jen Yang, an expert in technology policy at Duke University’s Center on Global Change. However, Yang, Kadak, and other experts agree that the big loser will be France, which is likely to experience a reduced capacity to export its own technology: the third-generation European Pressurized Reactor design developed by French nuclear technology firm Areva —the same design that EDF is using.

Areva is building a nuclear plant with the new design in Finland and bidding globally to build more, including a second unit for Finland. EDF is building two such plants in China and has proposed deploying the technology in power plant projects in the United States and the United Kingdom, among other countries.

The French are struggling to build on this foothold in China’s burgeoning nuclear market. Yang says the French may have already lost the Chinese market to Westinghouse and its third-generation AP1000 reactor, four of which are under construction in China. Whereas Westinghouse agreed several years ago to share its technology with its Chinese partners, the French have yet to do so.

If France’s role in the reactor market is already slipping, experts say, France remains a major player in the development of advanced nuclear technologies that will be relevant in the decades to come. The Commissariat à l’énergie atomique—France’s counterpart to the U.S. Department of Energy—has been spending about 1.5 billion euros ($2 billion) annually on R&D into “nuclear technologies of the future.” That dwarfs the $885 million that Congress provided for the DOE’s nuclear energy R&D in 2011.

The results of that investment include competencies that could be lost if France pulls back from nuclear energy broadly. Kadak cites their capacity to industrialize spent-fuel reprocessing technology that the world may ultimately need to manage nuclear waste. “This is an area where the French are clearly leaders,” says Kadak. If the French retrench, reprocessing development will “suffer globally and will affect our ability to recycle nuclear fuel.”

Burton Richter, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at Stanford University and former board member for Areva’s U.S. subsidiary, says France’s energy agency has been “more effective than the U.S. labs” in developing so-called Generation IV reactors. These advanced reactors can “breed” their own fuel by irradiating and transmutating unenriched uranium. Other designs can break down spent nuclear fuel.

France’s energy debate is scheduled to wrap up this July, and the government is then expected to draft and propose legislation in October. Anti-nuclear activists say public opinion is with them, citing a poll commissioned by Greenpeace last year in which 80 percent endorsed the statement that “France is too dependent on nuclear energy.”

Nuclear proponents retort that the debate could recommit France to nuclear energy, citing growing worries over jobs. Then there’s French automakers’ embrace of electric vehicle technology, which will be hard to charge with low-carbon energy without France’s reactors.

“The French establishment is looking at whether they can electrify transportation and the rest of industry, which would imply a massive increase in electricity demand,” notes Charles Forsberg, an MIT research scientist and executive director of the MIT Nuclear Fuel Cycle Project.

Both nuclear power and renewables could emerge as winners, says Forsberg: “At the end of the day, the French will likely have slow nuclear and accelerated renewables growth.”

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