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France is embarking on Europe’s most ambitious atomic construction project in decades. President Emmanuel Macron wants the first of six new reactors switched on by 2035, and there’s scope to build eight more. But French ambition has caused a split with European partners.
The EU has had to adjust its climate policies to accommodate French plans by permitting increased use of nuclear energy on the path to net zero by 2050. France’s biggest opponent was Germany, which in April switched off its last three nuclear plants, motivated by safety and waste disposal concerns. But the shift showed spectacular bad timing. European sanctions on Russian energy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cut off a major supplier for Germany, meaning its reliance on dirty coal may last longer than planned.
Europe’s energy crisis has taken its toll on France too. EDF posted a record operating loss of 19bn euros in 2022, and French electricity still isn’t cheap. The predicted wholesale cost for French energy next winter is more than twice that of Germany’s.
The ambitious French nuclear plan faces big hurdles. After a prolonged slowdown in nuclear construction, the mean age of France’s nuclear fleet is topped only by the United States, when comparing the world’s top five fleets. France will now need 100,000 specialist workers to realise its plans, many of whom will take years to train up. The France-Germany debate reflects radically different approaches to energy policy, with Germany following a more market-led approach and France favouring state-driven grand plans.
The French nuclear revival also reflects wider global trends. After a sharp drop off in 2011, the number of nuclear reactors worldwide has gradually been building up again over the past 12 years. The UK plans a new fleet of small nuclear power plants aiming to boost nuclear power generation from 15 per cent to 25 per cent by 2050, and Sweden has redefined its clean energy goals. It’s now aiming to become fossil free by 2045, rather than aiming for fully renewable power. After voting to phase out nuclear power 40 years ago, it now wants at least two new reactors.
Nuclear’s resurgence could help governments hit climate targets, ensure energy independence, and keep costs down. But in Europe, more nuclear power will almost certainly be accompanied by more political battles.