Reversing his previous pledge to reduce dependence on nuclear power, President Emmanuel Macron announced in February plans to build at least six new nuclear reactors over the coming decades in a move to help France reach net zero by 2050. Alongside this, Macron is also looking to extend the operational lifetime of the country’s 32 oldest existing nuclear reactors by 10 years to half a century, thereby avoiding having to shut them down this decade. The new plants — advanced versions of the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) model — will be built and operated by state-owned utility EDF at a cost of €50billion (€41.9billion). While experts have assessed the scheme as being feasible in its ambition on paper, EDF has already had difficulties bringing EPR reactors to fruition. The Hinkley Point facility in Somerset, for example, is already years behind schedule and billions over its original budget — as is the Flamanville reactor in northwest France.
The recent emphasis on large-scale nuclear reactors is, at least superficially, seemingly at odds with President Macron’s announcement late last year that France would be investing in so-called small modular reactor designs as part of his “France 2020” roadmap.
While smaller than conventional nuclear plants, these modules — which would be built at a factory and transported to their operating site — are expected to be easier to construct, requires less manpower to operate and also come with enhanced safety features.
Of the strategy’s allocated €30billion (£25.2billion) budget, €8billion (£6.7 billion) is to be apportioned towards the development of hydrogen power, compared with just €1billion (£0.8billion) towards small-scale reactor concepts.
Despite this funding disparity, however, Mr Macron asserted that the realisation of the small modular reactors was in fact “goal number one”.
These facilities — which could be built in clusters to increase the total power output of a given site — would have a power capacity of somewhere between 50–500 megawatts each.
For comparison, France’s existing reactors have capacities of up to 1,450 megawatts.
Mr Macron is not the only French politician with their eyes on expanding France’s nuclear capacity, however — with his rival Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right National Rally party keen to present herself as an even more ardent proponent of atomic energy.
Ms Le Pen has said that she wants to end “overly expensive” investments in solar and wind power, thereby enabling her to slash VAT on petrol from 20 down to 5.5 percent, a move intended to cement her aspirations to be seen as the “protector of the poor”.
In her recently-released environmental dossier, she wrote: “The French will be able to continue taking their family out in their cars, taking baths, enjoying the wood fire in the fireplace and celebrating Christmas!”
To fill the energy supply gap which will be enhanced by pulling back on wind and solar, Ms Le Pen proposes to construct 20 new large nuclear plants — with five to come online in 2031 and the rest by 2036 — while rebooting the two Fessenheim reactors that were decommissioned in 2020.
Alongside this, she has outlined a plan, named “Marie Curie” after the famous Polish-French physicist who conducted pioneering work around radioactivity, to extend the lifetime of France’s existing reactors to 60 years each.
According to some experts, regardless of who wins the election, and the type of reactors being proposed, France may have ulterior motives for wanting to emphasise nuclear power in their future energy and climate strategies.
Human geographer Dr Philip Johnstone of the University of Sussex, for example, told DW that “Countries that are clinging on to nuclear power are often nuclear weapon states — such as the UK, the US and France.”
In fact, during a speech on France’s nuclear industry in the December of 2020, Mr Macron himself said: “Without civil nuclear power, no military nuclear power; and without military nuclear power, no civil nuclear power.”
For Dr Johnstone, France’s flirtations with small modular reactor concepts, in particular, represents, “first and foremost, a strategic decision” — one that will, in his eyes, waste “a lot of time and money”.