The French exception

As the world turns back to nuclear power, it should heed lessons from France



December 15, 2022 - 1:42 PM

Wolf Creek generating station outside of Burlington, Kan., has been online since 1985. The plant generates electricity for an approximate 800,000 homes. Photo by WOLF CREEK NUCLEAR OPERATING CORP.

It was branded the most expensive way to boil water. Not so long ago, many dismissed nuclear power as pricey and doomed, at least in the West. Yet today nuclear energy is crucial once again. In the short run, Europe’s ability to get through the winter energy crunch depends in part on whether France’s aging fleet of nuclear reactors can be cranked up to operate nearer full capacity. And in the long run, investment and innovation in nuclear power appear to be part of the answer to both Vladimir Putin’s energy war and climate change: an almost carbon-free way to generate a steady and controllable flow of electricity to work alongside intermittent solar and wind generation.

As a result, countries around the world are once again embracing nuclear power, which today accounts for 25% of electricity generation in the European Union, and 10% around the world. Money is flooding into research and startups, although excitement this week over the results of a nuclear-fusion experiment at America’s National Ignition Facility has got far ahead of itself — years’ or decades’ more work will be needed to discover whether the concept is viable. Despite the industry’s record of cost overruns, Britain and France are keen to build large new conventional plants and Germany has postponed closing its reactors this year. India’s state-controlled power firm, NTPC, is planning lots of new nuclear capacity, according to Bloomberg. Nuclear generation will have to double by 2050 if the world is to reach net-zero emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

As countries choose whether to bet on nuclear power, they ought to look at France, the West’s leader. After the first oil shock in 1973, it built enough reactors to supply about 70% of its power. Yet its experience has been hard. Maintenance problems mean that the fleet has been operating below its theoretical capacity this year, contributing to a Europe-wide spike in power prices. The main company, EDF, has accumulated a staggering $350 billion of liabilities, is expected to make $19 billion of pre-tax losses this year and is about to be fully nationalized. And the supply of new reactors has stalled. Of the six built since 1999 that are of the latest French design — five abroad and one at home — only the two built in China are generating electricity.

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