Electric Dreams

France Chooses Non-Nuclear Option

Time to stop French reactors? Source: DPA
Time to stop French reactors?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    France plans to cut nuclear power’s share of total electricity generation from 75 to 50 percent by 2025, calling into question the atomic energy industry’s long-term prospects.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The modernization of French nuclear reactors will cost billions in the coming years.
    • China, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Poland and South Africa are potential future markets for the French nuclear industry.
    • German firms such as Bilfinger and KSB want to piggyback on the French business.
  • Audio

    Audio

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France, long one of the strongest proponents of nuclear power, is now planning a major reduction in atomic energy.

France’s National Assembly passed a law on Tuesday presenting a dramatic turnaround in energy policy: nuclear power’s share of electricity generation will drop from 75 percent today to 50 percent by 2025.

In Germany, which has traditionally always been more skeptical of nuclear energy, the government approved a complete phaseout in 2011, just a few months after Japan’s Fukushima catastrophe. The historic measure, which had widespread approval across party lines in parliament, stipulates that all German reactors will be shut down by 2022.

France does not want to go that far. The country’s nuclear power production will only decrease by one-third, according to the current plan. But that’s still enough to prompt the French nuclear industry, which employs 125,000 people, to look urgently for new customers abroad.

German companies affected by the energy transition at home are hoping to be able to step into the French market with this upgrading of existing French nuclear power plants

At the same time as the vote in the National Assembly, the nuclear industry organized its first trade fair in Le Bourget near Paris. France is already the most important global provider of nuclear technology with exports totaling €8 billion ($10.2 billion). The products for sale ranged from special steel to disposal technology to entire nuclear reactors.

It remains unclear how France will implement the nuclear reduction. The law only first gives a rough framework: in 2050 energy consumption should only amount to half of 2012 levels. By 2030 there should be a 30-percent drop in fossil fuels use. Renewable energy should make up 23 percent of the total supply in six years, rising to 32 percent by 2030. The reduction of the nuclear share of power generation to 50 percent becomes clearest seen against the backdrop of these energy conservation targets: The goal is not a relative reduction, but an absolute drop in French nuclear power.

Nor is it yet certain which nuclear plants will be affected by the changes. French President François Hollande promised that the oldest in Fessenheim should be the first taken offline. But its operator state energy giant EDF hopes to keep the reactor, which sits on the border with Germany, on the grid. EDF argues that a large amount of money has already been spent on modernization of the facility.

Such costs will increase tremendously in the coming years. EDF will have to pay €55 billion to modernize its 58 nuclear power plants, which are to operate considerably longer than the 30 years originally intended.

German companies hit by their domestic energy transition are hoping to use this upgrading of existing French nuclear power plants as a way of entering the French market. Companies such as Bilfinger and KSB want to be involved with their high performance tubes, pumps and valves. And they hope to be able to join EDF in  third-country markets in the future.

“It won’t be easy, because the French sector is also looking at the future with uncertainty, but we already have a framework agreement,” said a Bilfinger representative.

EDF boss Henri Proglio has set the firm’s future on overseas expansion. EDF and the nuclear plant builder Areva have a strong presence in China. In Britain, EDF wants to build reactors worth €19 billion. Mr. Proglio said Tuesday he would now like to “work together with Saudi Arabia on a vision for a strong nuclear sector.” He also has set his sights on Poland and South Africa.

EDF under Mr. Proglio has been successful and he says he would like to lead the company for another five years. The government, however, is keeping him in the dark. That is also the case with Areva head Luc Oursel, whose company, however, has not been able to return to profitability.

 

Thomas Hanke is Handelsblatt’s Paris correspondent. To contact the author: Hanke@handelsblatt.com

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