President Macron recently gave his backing to nuclear power, saying it is the only way France can meet targets to reduce greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
At the same time the nuclear safety body Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN ) launched a public consultation over plans to extend the life of 32 nuclear reactors built in the 1970s beyond 40 years – the expected lifespan when they were built.
President Macron visited the forge owned by nuclear power station maker Framatome, at Le Creusot, last month to make a speech backing nuclear power.
His visit is seen as preparing the way for France to order a new EPR reactor, even though the first, being built at Flamanville near Cherbourg, is 10 years behind schedule and costs have risen from an initial €3.4billion to €19.1billion.
In the 1970s, France decided to produce most of its electricity from nuclear power after the economy was hit by the oil crisis
Ironically, there are new warnings of possible power cuts if there is a sharp cold spell, as in the 1970s – this time due to non-essential maintenance not being done during lockdown.
Using a modified American pressurised water design, the French reactors each produce 900MW and are still operated by state-owned EDF. Similar reactors in the US have been cleared to run for 80 years.
EDF wants to run the reactors for another 20 years. They undergo inspection every 10 years and ASN has declared them safe after a fourth 10-year check but, before giving final approval for an extension, it is consulting the public.
A spokeswoman for ASN , previously criticised as being staffed by pro-nuclear former EDF engineers, told Connexion: “This decision will define the conditions for these reactors’ continued functioning.
“It will prescribe the major improvements in safety planned by EDF and also the supplementary dispositions ASN considers necessary.
“We have not yet taken a generic decision on all the 900MW reactors. After we do that, we will look at each individual reactor. Nothing is decided yet.” Extra checks, including looking at new safety features such as putting pumps high in buildings and higher protective dikes, decided after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, have been programmed until 2022.
The Fukushima reactors were of a boiling water design, not a PWR design, but ASN has said some of the causes of the accident – in particular, pumps situated on the ground floor being flooded – should be insured against in the French designs.
Greenpeace France, the country’s most visible anti-nuclear organisation, has issued a 10- point statement, saying prolongation is “too risky, dangerous and costly”.
Of particular concern, it claims, are the cores, which it says cannot be replaced and become fragile.
A cracked core of a reactor was a major factor at the Fukushima accident.
It points to the trouble EDF is having with Flamanville, with ASN inspections showing welding of crucial parts being botched, and records being falsified at Framatome in charge of building the core, as justification for saying similar faults are possibly hidden in the 900MW reactors.
Standards in the 1970s, for issues such as jets crashing into reactors, were much less strict than now, Greenpeace adds.
It also says pollution from the reactors is common, both from leaks and from the nuclear waste they produce.
How France powers itself
France is known for being the industrialised nation most dependent on nuclear power stations for its electricity but things are changing.
Electricity network firm RTE said on a cold mid-December day that 62% of electricity (equivalent to 46,381MW) was coming from nuclear power. Hydro-electricity was next on the list, producing 17%, mainly from dams built in the Alps and Pyrenees in the 20th century.
Gas provided 11% of the power – much of it shipped from Algeria in purpose-built ships – wind 6%, coal 1%, solar power 1% and bioenergy (such as wood or methane) 1%.
On that day, the emergency power stations burning diesel were not operational.
President Macron abandoned in 2017 the target set by President Hollande of reducing the share of nuclear power to 50% by 2025, with the target now for 2035, if feasible.
Increasing the share of renewable energy in France is problematic – new wind turbines on land provoke strong opposition from locals, angry at the impact on views, noise, lights at night and loss of farming land. Projects for offshore wind farms have still not arrived 10 years after being launched.
To counter arguments, the government unveiled a plan imposing limits on the number in any one region, more consultation and cash for surrounding communes, and opening up military training areas for wind turbines.
It is working to boost the number of photovoltaic panels in France, with subsidies to householders – encouraging them to use “auto-consumption” plans, where they use the electrical power they produce and sell only the surplus to the grid. Funding this means that some large photovoltaic power stations set up with heavy subsidies in the last 20 years will see their guaranteed prices cut – something which could deter further investment.