In Europe, where nuclear power capacity has been declining since the early 2000s (from 31% of total electricity produced in 2005 to 25% in 2015), France alone produces 53% (not including Britain in the calculations). While crucial for France given that 75% of its electricity supply comes from this sector, the nuclear issue also concerns Europe as a whole. This is clear from the fact that half of all European reactors are located in France alone.
Pursuing a policy of maintaining nuclear power at its current level, which is now being seen as a reality, is therefore a source of major concern for both the French and Europe as a whole. This is especially so given that the geographical location of France, downwind of the prevailing winds of western Europe, makes its neighbours particularly vulnerable to the consequences of a possible accident. Sixteen reactors are located at the borders with Belgium, Germany or Switzerland and 34 within 500 km of these borders.
This policy, in principle influenced by the transitional law of 2015 which set the goal of reducing nuclear power’s share in French electricity production from 75% to 50% by 2025, is yet to have had any effect. It would involve shutting down some 20 reactors by that date. This is not what is happening. No precise date has been set for dismantling the Fessenheim power plant that President François Hollande undertook to close before the end of 2017.
However, in the current context, it is clear that any new delay in closing the reactors will only result in aggravating the crises that France is facing on the nuclear front.
Without the immediate launch of a plan and a timetable for the closure of these reactors over the next seven years, the situation as regards nuclear capacity will hardly have changed by 2025. Especially given the notable inertia of a French government and an industrial lobby that seem totally unperturbed by the lessons learned from foreign experience in recent years (in particular the Fukushima accident) and the major changes in the field of energy production.
However, in the current context, it is clear that any new delay in closing the reactors will only result in aggravating the crises that France is facing on the nuclear front:
There is a major technical crisis that is arising from the discovery of the magnitude of the problems related to the quality of steel already used or to be used for the replacement of parts or the construction of new reactors. In addition, there is the aggravating circumstance of a misrepresentation whose magnitude has yet to be determined.
Areva, whose bankruptcy could only be avoided after it was bought back in part by the national operator, EDF, and EDF, whose economic equilibrium has been seriously compromised.
There is a security crisis, which is largely a result of the above and is accompanied by a serious crisis of confidence between the National Security Authority and the operator, based on the viability of the incident reports produced by the latter. In the face of the voluntary omissions that have been discovered, the ‘nuclear policeman’ (the National Security Authority) is being forced to carry out much more frequent and thorough investigations and inspections to detect deliberately hidden defects.
There is an economic crisis, with a company, Areva, whose bankruptcy could only be avoided after it was bought back in part by the national operator, EDF, and EDF, whose economic equilibrium has been seriously compromised. This is all taking place in an international context marked by a steady decline in the share of nuclear power in the global electricity mix (11% in 2015, as against 18% in 1996), and the collapse of companies such as Westinghouse and Toshiba.
There is an environmental crisis with increased risks posed by the ageing of nuclear installations and the financial difficulties of the operator.
There is a social crisis that will hit workers from the nuclear industry hard when they will be brutally confronted with the unplanned closure of a large number of power stations in the next ten years.
However, EDF, without being challenged by the State, claims to want to both extend the life of the current nuclear installations from 10 to 20 years and then replace them with a series of European Pressure Reactors (EPRs) from 2030 at a minimum cost of €250 billion …
European citizens should have a say in the rising environmental and economic risks caused by the French enthusiasm for pursuing a policy which, in the face of all logic, very directly affects the energy future of Europe as well as of France for the next century and severely restricts the penetration of renewable energy, smart grids and energy saving potential. All of this is leading to a significant delay in relation to meeting Europe’s climate commitments.
The French nuclear issue can no longer continue to be an exclusively French issue: it involves Europe, its climate policy, its economy and the security of its citizens.