Experts worry France’s plans to replace “up to 17 nuclear reactors” with wind and solar power by 2025 could be extremely costly and make the country vastly more dependent on imported energy.
“It certainly will decrease their independence and force France to relay more on energy imports,” Lake Barrett, former deputy director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “It will be costly and work against the new government’s desire to improve the French economy. Higher energy prices will make it more difficult for businesses to expand and reduce high unemployment.”
French President Emmanuel Macron plans to reduce the amount of electricity it gets from nuclear energy from 75 to 50 percent by 2025. There are 58 operating nuclear reactors, and low-end estimates put the cost of phasing out 17 reactors at $248 billion by 2035.
The potential reduction in nuclear power would be a huge break from France’s traditional energy policy. The country invested heavily in nuclear since the 1973 oil crisis with the goal of increasing its energy independence.
“An election has up-ended everything, which is very bad for both energy policy and climate policy,” Dr. Jeff Terry, a professor of nuclear physics involved in energy research at the Illinois Institute of Technology, told TheDCNF. “It is sad to see what’s happening in France. They have very good and very safe nuclear programs.”
France’s production of nuclear power has been steadily falling largely due to a law passed by the French government last November intended to prop up solar power. The legislation could force Electricite de France (EDF), the country’s state-controlled utility, to close 18 to 20 of its 58 nuclear reactors by 2025.
“Whether they build solar or import coal power from Germany, France is still going to have a net increase in carbon emissions and that doesn’t help anybody,” Terry said. “This is almost purely political. I really hope they reconsider and I really hope in the US we look at this as an example of what not to do.”
France’s nuclear phaseout stems from a political pact made by former French President François Hollande during the 2012 election to prop up his alliance with the anti-nuclear Green party. Environmental groups endorsed the plan as a method of reducing the amount of nuclear waste.
“These large NGOs aren’t environmental groups anymore,” Terry said. “The moment you cross over into anti-science behavior you stop being an environmental group. We have the technology to fix this, but thanks to them we’re choosing not to use it.”
“Environmentalism requires you to understand science and the science shows that nuclear is important in the fight against climate change,” Terry said. “Now they’re all about socialism, not true environmentalism.”
Other energy experts argue replacing nuclear reactors with solar panels and wind turbines could make global warming worse.
“France apparently thinks they can replace carbon-free nuclear energy with carbon-free renewables in a major way,” David Blee, executive director of the Nuclear Infrastructure Council, told TheDCNF. “That’s a high bar under any scenario but fanciful in less than 10 years and it can only happen at two to three times the cost of the baseload nuclear they already have paid for.”
France’s nuclear industry is currently one of the most advanced in the world. The country is currently building some of the world’s most advanced reactors.
“The French reactors have run well and have been very productive over the last decades,” Barrett said. “Replacing them for political statements will be very expensive for the French people in both the production employment area and as consumers.”
It is far from clear that renewable energy like wind and solar power can be expanded enough to make up for losing the nuclear reactors.
“Renewables promise a lot, but due to the intermittent power generation there has to be a large spinning reserve to fill in the load demand when the wind dies and sun sets,” Barrett said. “Battery technology is still very expensive, so imported fossil fuels, or imported fossil electricity, will likely fill the gap. Exactly what they have promised not to do in the Paris accord. But talk is cheap, especially when the burden falls on others later on.”
The amount of additional electricity wind and solar would need to generate to fill the gap left by the 17 shuttered reactors is enormous. France is more reliant on nuclear power than any other country in the world, as it currently operates 63,200 megawatts of nuclear capacity, according to the World Nuclear Association. To put that number in perspective, the U.S. only has 100,350 megawatts of nuclear capacity even though it has almost five times the population of France.
“Any major expansion of renewables is likely to face strong public opposition given the land mass required and the not so favorable aesthetics of wind and solar in large clumps,” Blee said. “It will also come at great expense to French electricity consumers who will be paying a lot more for their power with no net gain in clean energy.”
Shutting down reactors is a major policy shift as reactors and fuel products and services are a major French export. The country is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity and mainly sells to Italy, Great Britain, Switzerland, Belgium and Spain — it earns France about $3.38 billion annually.
The reactors aren’t being shutdown because they’re expensive, but for purely political reasons, according to Barrett.
“They are being shutdown for political reasons that are disguised as economic reasons,” Barrett said. “Refurbishment of older reactors, although somewhat expensive from an early cash flow perspective, are very economic over the longer haul.
“Sweden did similar political moves after Three Mile Island accident in the early 1980s, but reality caused them to walk back their aggressive anti-nuclear shutdown rhetoric,” Barrett said. “Germany is now doing it as well, but Germany is very affluent with a strong economy and can afford to throw away billions of euros chasing the renewable dream.”
EDF owns most of France’s reactors, but the company has serious financial problems and many of its projects have credit ratings below investment grade. The company is more than $40 billion in debt. Shares in EDF have fallen 55 percent over the past year, reducing its market capitalization to only $23.6 billion.
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