Op-ed articles

The future of France's nuclear reactor fleet

Jacques Percebois Emeritus Professor at Montpellier University
Director of the Energy Economics and Law Research Center (CREDEN)

"Global Competition is Becoming Sharper in the Nuclear Industry"

Although the topic was carefully avoided during the COP21 debates, one thing is certain: nuclear powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... cannot be left out if the world is serious about fighting against global warmingGlobal warming, also called planetary warming or climate change.... The need to promote low-carbon energy sources means that nuclear power has to be part of the package alongside renewables. It's not an either/or situation.

Indeed, even though it may have been kept relatively quiet in Paris, nuclear power is often a non-negligible component in the nationally determined contributions, notably for the two largest greenhouse-gas emitters: China and the United States. China has 30 nuclear reactors in operation, 25 under construction and 114 more on the drawing board for 2030. The United States, which has the world's largest installed base with some 100 plants in operation, is getting back into nuclear power with five new plants under construction. Russia, India and South Korea also rely heavily on nuclear power. Japan is looking cautiously at re-starting its industry after the trauma of Fukushima. And many emerging markets and oil-producing nations are interested, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, several Latin American countries and newcomers like Vietnam. In Eastern Europe, Bulgaria has two reactors under construction, while Poland and the Czech Republic have plans in the works. Missing from the picture is Western Europe, with the exception of two 1,600 MW EPR reactors under construction in France and Finland and the two Hinkley Point projects in the United Kingdom.

In all, 75 nuclear power plants are currently being built around the world. Nuclear power's share in the global electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... mix (currently 12-13%) should rise, albeit slowly, as the competition from natural gas and coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... remains strong.

France's Place in the Standings

Competition is becoming sharper with all of these promising markets. Russia's ROSATOM is clearly in first place for new power plant contract wins since 2010. Russia provides a turnkey package with the reactor and fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant..., which it recovers after use. Japanese and American companies come next, working together, followed by South Korean firms. And Chinese manufacturers are beginning to look beyond their borders.

The offer will most likely diversify, with potential demand for 1,000 MW reactors (or smaller) that are better suited to more modest power grids in developing nations. So far, there is not much to choose from in this segment.

France should not miss out on the opportunity to serve these promising markets, especially since it had a head start over its rivals. The country's nuclear industry, which has just reorganized into two separate businesses – reactors and fuel – has lost ground in power plant construction but remains well placed in the fuel cycle (uraniumGray, very dense radioactive metal that is relatively abundant in the Earth's crust and oceans in the form of UO2... extraction, enrichment and reprocessing).

It is also carving out a position in the huge emerging market for dismantling aging reactors and remediating decommissioned sites. This type of work is of interest to both Areva and EDF, as well as to groups like Veolia, providing undeniable prospects for the industry.

Jacques Percebois, Doctor in Economic Sciences, is Emeritus Professor at Montpellier University and Director of the Energy Economics and Law Research Center (CREDEN). In 2011, he was asked to lead a panel with Claude Mandil, the former Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA)An independent, intergovernmental organization founded within the framework of the OECD..., that produced a report entitled "Energies 2015", an overview of different possible energy scenarios for France in the next three decades.

Dominique Minière Group Senior Executive Vice President of the Nuclear and Thermal Power Plants Division

"France's Nuclear Reactor Fleet Will Be Gradually Renewed Over A Period Of 20 Years"

The future of France's nuclear reactors, which provide three-quarters of the country's electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor..., depends on a large number of highly unpredictable factors, including legislation, the decisions of the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASNThe ASN, or French Nuclear Safety Authority, is an independent administrative authority founded in 2006...), the government's five-year energy plans and household energy consumption.

Let's look first at the Energy Transition Act adopted in 2015. This legislation caps nuclear powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... generation capacity at its 2015 level of 63.2 GW, which means that when the Flamanville 3 EPR unit comes on stream in late 2018, the country will need to shut down the equivalent of 1,500 MW in capacity. That's a little less than two 900 MW reactors. At the government's request, we have committed to considering the sole scenario of closing the Fessenheim plant in Alsace. The Board of Directors will make a decision in compliance with the Act after a number of preliminary steps, including discussions on the indemnities to be paid by the French State to offset the loss from shutting down an operating reactor and consultation with employee representatives.

Let's talk next about the reactor fleet's lifespan. There isn't any set length of service. Each reactor receives an authorization to operate for ten years from the ASN. The facility undergoes a safety inspection at the end of this period, and if the results are satisfactory, the ASN grants a new authorization to operate for ten more years. In comparison, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issues licenses to operate for up to 40 years without interim inspections and recently extended several licenses for up to 60 years.

In France, 80% of the reactor fleet was built between 1980 and 1990, which means that four-fifths of the installed base will reach the 40-year milestone between 2020 and 2030. EDF believes that extending these plants' operating life beyond 40 years is both possible, from a technical and safety standpoint, and desirable, from an industrial standpoint. This will require certain modifications, such as replacing or renovating components. Work has begun under the "Grand Carénage" reactor life extension program. In addition, we have initiated a project known as "Cap 2030" to stagger renovation instead of mirroring the ten-year pace of construction. As a result, the operating life of the oldest reactors will be extended to 50 years, and that of the youngest to 60 years. In this way, the fleet will be gradually renewed over a period of 20 years.

Lastly, the situation will depend on the French government's five-year energy plans (PPE). The first sets guidelines for the energy mixThe range of energy sources of a region. up until 2018, and the second will cover the period from 2018 to 2023. The PPE will reflect the provisions of the Energy Transition Act, which scales back nuclear's share of French power generation to 50% by 2025, and the powerful impulse provided by the Paris AgreementOil contract under which the oil that is produced is shared between the state and the oil company... of December 2015 to reduce CO2See Carbon Dioxid emissions without compromising the growth of developing economies.

The development of low carbon energies, i.e., renewables and nuclear, can provide the solution. France already benefits from the excellent synergy among these sources of energy. At present, thermal power plants account for less than 2% of the country's power generation. As a result, France's carbon emissions from electricity generation are 20 times lower than the European average at 17g of CO2 per kWh, making us the low emissions champion. 

Dominique Minière, a graduate of Ecole des Mines de Paris, joined Electricité de France (EDF) in 1982 as an engineer. After holding various positions of responsibility in several nuclear power plants (Golfech, Daya Bay in China, Cattenom), he served as Deputy Director and then Director of the Generation & Engineering Division that supervises France's 58 reactors, from 2002 to 2013. He has been Group Senior Executive Vice President of the Nuclear and Thermal Power Plants Division and member of the Executive Committee of EDF since January 2015.

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