This is about nuclear energy, not about the US Senate…

I have been requested a few times to write about France’s nuclear energy programme. It’s a huge subject, and I have already spent too many hourse researching it, so what I will do now is provide a brief summary and a number of links that I have found for those of you that are interested in finding out more.

For the surrender-monkey-lovers amongst you, you can also go read my third installment on the French campaign for the referendum for or against the EU Consititution: EU Constitution – France Votes (III) What if it’s no?

So here we go.
Nuclear energy in France is big:

France is the second largest producer of nuclear energy after the US, with 58 reactors (104 in the USA) on 19 sites

Map of French nuclear plants (click on the “Nuclear” icon on the right)

More detailed map with the technical parameters of each nuclear plant (1 page pdf))

As this document (Nuclear Power in France – why does it work?) describes, nuclear energy was developed at a leisurely pace in the 60s and given a massive boost when the oil crisis struck. A massive programme was launched by the public authorities in 1975, which led to the wholesale replacement of fuel and coal-fired power plants by nuclear ones.

(Source for the above graph)

This was a fully centralised programme. EDF, the national electricity operator (then a monopoly) borrowed money with the sovereign guarantee of France to pay for it. It was built for the most part by French companies, but interestingly, it used a US technology (pressurised water) under license (developed by Westinghouse) because it was cheaper than the technology (using graphite) which had been developed so far in France. All 58 plants use the same technology, although the more recent reactors are more powerful than the earlier ones. All the companies involved in that effort were eventually consolidated into Areva, which is now the main industrial player in the sector and involved in the whole nuclear chain, from uranium mining to plant construction, and fuel processing and treatment:

EDF is the operator of all plants, but safety is regulated by an independent watchdog, the Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (website in French only, as far as I can tell). Environmentalists say (in French, again) that the watchdog cannot be considered to be independent as it is a government department and the State is the owner of EDF and strongly pro-nuclear… I am going into this debate here but provide various links below if you want to investigate further…

Thanks to the fact the all plants are identical, have been bought under a very long term plan (over 25 years) and are operated by a single entity, operating costs are quite low. The final cost of electricity per kWh also benefits from the fact that funds for the programme were borrowed using the very low rates that highly rated sovereign countries can obtain, and amortised over very long periods (initially 30 years, but the life of the older plants has been officially extended to 40 and it is likely that they will be further expansions). 5% interest rate over 40 years vs 8% over 20 years makes a huge difference, and the overall cost of electricity in France is very low. France exports electricity to all its neighbors, including the UK and Germany, and is competitive in all markets.

European Electricity prices in 2002 (click on picture for a bigger version, or on the link for the original)

Please note that, despite pretty much everything that you read in the financial press, EDF has NOT RECEIVED a centime from the French government in the past 25 years. Quite the opposite: it has regularly been “raided” by the government when there were budgetary crises (through special taxes or “dividends”), and it has also been used to fight inflation (by being forced to lower its prices regularly). It is a highly competitive electricity producer, and that’s the main reason why there are few competitors in France – it makes no sense to build new plants when you already have a massive supply of very cheap electricity.

I put out the following table in my previous diary on wind power:

Cost of production for various technologies, not taking into account externalities.

(my calculations from various sources which I’ll be happy to provide upon demand. I have modified some numbers somewhat to avoid giving out any confidential information when necessary)

The nuclear numbers come from this study made by the French Ministry of Industry (see a summary in English (pdf, 4 pages))

That table shows the importance of the interest rate hypothesis and thus the value in this industry of having a national player able to capture value on the financial markets by borrowing a lot cheaper than private operators.

On the emissions side, with nuclear making 80% of production and hydro another 10%, France’s carbon emissions are logically amongst the lowest in the industrialised world:

The other big advantage of nuclear is to avoid dependency on foreign supplies for electricity production. A good fraction of the uranium is imported, but it comes from friendly countries like Canada or Australia, as well as from some African countries with a “friendly” French presence like Niger. France thus produces 50% of its energy needs overall from domestic sources, versus 26% in 1973.

The last big topics are that of plant decommissioning and nuclear waste.

Two big reports on these topics have been published by independent bodies in recent weeks, so there is a lot of information available, unfortunately most of it is in French. The debate is quite lively here, but I have not found many references in the English speaking press. Here are the reports:

Parliament evaluation of nuclear waste management options (March 2005, in French)

Cour des Comptes report on decommissioning and nuclear waste (in French; the Cour des Comptes is the financial watchdog for all public entities, it is fiercely independent).

The summary (15 page pdf, in French) of the document of the Cour des Comptes is as follows:

  • risks linked to operations are well identified
  • risks linked to waste management are well identified and managed. Decisions on long term storage are pending (they are due in 2006, see next report)
  • decommissioning and waste storage are well estimated and amount to about 10% of production costs. However, the absolute numbers are quite high.
  • current provisions by the 3 main actors of the sector (EDF, Areva and CEA, the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique, which runs R&D and manages some of the older reactors) amount to 71 billion euros
  • full transparency is required in the accounting of these provisions and their plans of use (these should be set in stone and not be subject to short term contingencies). Only Areva fulfills this requirement at this point.

As regards the long term management of nuclear waste, a specific agency, ANDRA was created by a 1991 law, with a 15 year mission to find a long term solution  for nuclear waste. 3 axis or research were examined: (i) separation and transmutation (transforming nuclear elements into other, less noxious, elements by chemical processes and isolating the more radioactive ones from the rest) (ii) long term permanent storage of waste  in deep geological layers and (iii) temporary storage of certain elements in the expectation that they can be processed at a later stage.
All 3 are expected to be pursued, and the choice of the site for long term geological storage, that of La Bure, in Eastern France, is close to being made.

The report proposes to pursue all 3 and sets a detailed plan over the next 35 years to organise it. It provides detailed estimates of the expected cost of the whole process and proposes to create a specific fund, to be funded by the nuclear industry, to pay for it over the corresponding period.

Other reports (such as this one, Lifetime of Nuclear Power Plants and New Designs  of Reactors (in English, for once) address the question of how and when to replace the existing power plants in the long term. France has now taken the decision to build a demonstration version of the  “EPR” (European Pressurised Water Reactor), a new generation of reactor built on the same technology as the existing ones, with incremental improvements. It would be built by Areva and Siemens, and has also been ordered by Finland.

France is happy with nuclear energy and intends to continue using it on a large scale. It has workes so far because it has been run in a highly centralised way, with one operator with the full backing of the State under a very long term plan. Both the operator and the public supervisory body have a strong engineering culture with an emphasis on technical excellence and safety, and they are generally trusted, despite occasional lapses in transparency which are increasingly corrected nowadays.

The full costs of the programme appear to be mostly accounted for, and nuclear plants have provided cheap electricity to France over the past 20 years at no cost to the public purse.

If this appears too good to be true, well, maybe it is! I don’t claim full neutrality on this topic, being French, and an alumni of the same engineering school as many of the top people at EDF and Areva, but, as you may be remember, I am a big supporter of wind power and I still see a need for nuclear energy as the “base load”. Let’s be clear: it’s going to be nuclear or coal, and I will let Plan9 (from dKos) argue how much worse coal is!

That’s it for now.

To keep you busy, here are a few more links on the topic that I have found interesting, coming from both nuclear proponents and opponents (you know, fair and balanced and all that):

Nuclear energy today (OECD, 2005)
World Nuclear Association’s “Nuclear Energy made simple

LockerGnome encyclopedia on Nuclear Power

Office for Nuclear Affairs of the French Embassy in the US

EDF’s page in English on nuclear energy

Areva’s description of its industrial activities in the “nuclear cycle”

2004 Report on Nuclear Safety (114p, pdf, in French)

Breakdown of electricity production and CO2 emissions (click on the respective links for separate pop up windows.
Sortir du nucléaire (getting away from nuclear energy) the French umbrella group of most anti-nuclear associations (in French only)

Greenpeace’s “End the nuclear threat”

Eole vs Pluton, a Greenpeace campaign comparing the costs of investing in nuclear energy or wind energy in the future.

0 0 votes
Article Rating