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France Announces a Big Buildup of Its Nuclear Power Program

President Emmanuel Macron announced a major buildup of France’s huge nuclear power program on Thursday, pledging to construct up to 14 new-generation reactors and a fleet of smaller nuclear plants as the country seeks to slash planet-warming emissions and cut its reliance on foreign energy.

The announcement represented an about-face for Mr. Macron, who had previously pledged to reduce France’s reliance on nuclear power but has pivoted to burnishing an image as a pronuclear president battling climate change as he faces a tough re-election bid in April.

“What our country needs is the rebirth of France’s nuclear industry,” Mr. Macron said at a nuclear turbine factory in the industrial city of Belfort in eastern France as throngs of workers and political officials gathered around. “The time has come for a nuclear renaissance,” he added.

Mr. Macron’s move is seen as a pivotal moment in a growing debate over nuclear power in Europe. The divide has taken on new dimensions as leaders pledge to avert a climate catastrophe and grapple with an energy crisis that has sent prices for natural gas and electricity surging to record highs — in part because nuclear energy production has fallen.

Mr. Macron has been leading a coalition of like-minded countries in backing nuclear energy to speed up the push to net-zero emissions and energy independence. That has opened a rift with a group of nations led by Germany, which is wary of nuclear proliferation and will close its last atomic power plants this year, following a 2011 policy set by former Chancellor Angela Merkel after the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.

The French plan is aimed at cementing the country’s position as Europe’s biggest atomic power producer and positioning Électricité de France, or EDF, the troubled state-backed operator, to compete more aggressively against Chinese and American companies in the growing global market for nuclear energy.

With an estimated starting price of 50 billion euros ($57 billion), Mr. Macron’s blueprint consists of constructing six mammoth next-generation pressurized water reactors at existing nuclear sites around France starting in 2028, with an option to consider building up to eight more by 2050.

Saying it had “fallen behind” in the nuclear energy race, Mr. Macron said France would also build a prototype small modular reactor — a new type of scaled-down nuclear power plant — by 2030, pitting the country against a growing number of others pushing out the technology.

Environmental groups denounced the plan, saying that Mr. Macron had not consulted Parliament or French citizens, and that nuclear power, which doesn’t produce direct carbon emissions but generates long-term radioactive waste, was a nonstarter in the fight against climate change.

“This is a crucial decision that would engage France for centuries in terms of the hazardous waste that nuclear facilities produce,” Nicolas Nace, the head of energy transition policy at Greenpeace France, said. “There has been no real democratic debate about this — just a candidate making opportunistic declarations,” he added.

Climate change and the nuclear industry’s potential role in it have become a central issue in France’s coming presidential election. Most candidates, with the exception of France’s Greens party, have said nuclear power is needed to meet climate goals.

The nuclear industry is a national priority in France, creating about 200,000 jobs directly and indirectly.

France relies on an aging fleet of 56 nuclear reactors — the most after the United States, with 93 — to generate 70 percent of its electricity and to export energy to other countries. But France has fallen from dominance as EDF, which has grappled with a series of longstanding setbacks, faces a full-blown crisis just as Europe struggles with an energy crunch.

The company warned this week that its nuclear energy output would slump to the lowest levels since the 1990s because of problems at some sites, sending European energy prices to fresh highs. The company has temporarily closed 10 reactors, down from 17 in December, for maintenance, including to fix cracks found in pipes at some plants.

The energy shortfall has left France in the awkward position this winter of leaning more heavily on its coal-fired power stations, tapping coal-generated electricity from Germany and relying on natural gas imports as prices spike amid the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

While Mr. Macron has sought to position himself as a European leader in transitioning to a carbon-free future, France’s wind and solar power capacity is not yet sufficient to make up for the shortfall in its nuclear energy output.

On Thursday, Mr. Macron said France would ramp up those power sources by seeking to create at least 50 offshore wind farms and doubling France’s capacity of onshore wind power. France will also increase its solar power capacity tenfold, to generate over 100 gigawatts of power, by 2030, he said.

“We need to massively develop renewable energies,” Mr. Macron said, “because it is the only way to meet our immediate electricity needs, since it takes 15 years to build a nuclear reactor.”

Whether EDF can fulfill Mr. Macron’s orders remains to be seen. The debt-laden company has been grappling with corrosion problems at old nuclear reactors for years. It has also struggled to convince foreign buyers that it can deliver projects on time and within budget.

The company’s pressurized reactors — the type that Mr. Macron called for in his speech — have faced severe delays and cost overruns.

In France, a reactor in the northwestern town of Flamanville that was supposed to be completed in 2012 at a cost of €3 billion has faced setbacks and won’t open until at least 2023, with the bill ballooning to over €12 billion.

Another EDF reactor, in Finland, was planned to open in 2009; it now won’t start full power production until June. The EDF-backed Taishan Nuclear Power Plant in China’s Guangdong Province faced what the company said were “performance issues” last year.

Mr. Macron said the government would “assume its responsibilities” in securing EDF’s finances and its short- and medium-term financing capacity. France will provide the company with what is likely to be tens of billions in state aid — made possible in part after Mr. Macron lobbied Brussels to classify nuclear energy as a green investment.

Mr. Macron’s decision to cast the renewal of France’s nuclear energy arsenal around the fight against climate change at the Belfort nuclear turbine factory was strategic. General Electric took over the plant from the French company Alstom in 2015 when Mr. Macron, then France’s economy minister, approved the sale, which his political opponents criticized.

On Thursday, hours before Mr. Macron spoke at the plant, EDF closed a deal with the blessing of the Élysée Palace to buy back part of the operations from General Electric.

Read More: France Announces a Big Buildup of Its Nuclear Power Program

2022-02-10 14:11:02

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