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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 - it's macromedia flash)

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 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.

Originally posted to Jerome a Paris on Sun Apr 10, 2005 at 03:26 PM PDT.


Nuclear energy

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Comment Preferences

  •  Nucular option (4.00)

    in the long run, we're all dead (Keynes)

    by Jerome a Paris on Sun Apr 10, 2005 at 03:23:23 PM PDT

    •  ad (none)
      Cross posted from Moon of Alabama, the site where many of Billmon's Whiskey Bar commenters have found a new home, and on Booman Tribune where "World diaries" stay recommended for a few days and are thus open for more leisurely conversations.

      in the long run, we're all dead (Keynes)

      by Jerome a Paris on Sun Apr 10, 2005 at 03:28:33 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  thanks (none)
      Very clear and thorough overview.  I've always wondered why nuclear seems to work so much better in France, and now have a better idea.

      It does seem to be one of the better long-term options, and more environmentally palatable than dumping hundreds of thousands of wind turbines across the landscape...

    •  Please post this in the dKosepedia (4.00)
      This was a lot of work, is an informative article, has a lot of facts and leads, and interesting, but intentionally light analysis so that it may be used as the beginning of both study and debate. Recommended.

      Seriously, please put it in the dKosepedia for future reference. The points about adequate planning, unified engineering, correct oversight, independent monitoring, and independent accounting are well made.

      Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it. - Mark Twain

      by Rolfyboy6 on Sun Apr 10, 2005 at 05:39:31 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Sacre bleu! (none)
      I missed this diary when it came out, Jérome.

      And I had been hoping for months that you would do it.

      Very good presentation.  Beaucoup thanks!

    •  Thanks (none)
      I missed your diary when it was posted, and it brings up real arguments. I have tried to address the same issues in the French context, and it seems to me that it is slightly better, in that there are fewer conflicts of interest to manage when the State does everything and is strong enough to make rules and impose them, but these are real issues.

      Btw, Areva, the nuclear company, is a strong proponent of wind power as well. They sell carbon free energy in both cases...

      in the long run, we're all dead (Keynes)

      by Jerome a Paris on Sun Apr 10, 2005 at 03:38:28 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent (none)
    Very informative.  Wonderful diary, as usual.  Thanks Jerome.
  •  What about (none)
    the short term solution for nuke waste while the long term is still being sought and...

    are the costs of waste disposal factored into the overall cost of the project or is it a left out of the costs as a separate item (and how much is the government picking up of the disposal costs?)

    If we knock on our neighbor's door, introduce ourselves, ask their opinion and explain why we're Democrats, we'll win. Howard Dean (paraphrased)

    by philinmaine on Sun Apr 10, 2005 at 04:12:58 PM PDT

    •  yep (none)
      The third item in the proposed list for waste is a form of temporary storage on or near the surface (i.e. without the supposedly hermetic protection provided by geology in the deep storages) whereby the waste could be eventually processed in a better way.

      the production cost does include these end-of-life and waste treatment costs. The exisitng provisions are now going to be allocated with more precision, if I understand correctly.

      10% of production cost for waste and decommissioning seems pretty good. The problem is that it's 10% of a big amount for a long time and such a big pile of money attracts a lot of unhealthy interest, starting with the cash-strapped government...

      in the long run, we're all dead (Keynes)

      by Jerome a Paris on Sun Apr 10, 2005 at 04:18:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Conservation is the best source of energy (4.00)
    If Americans bought only appliances with an "Energy Star" rating over the next 15 years, the reduction in greenhouse gases would equate to taking 17 million cars off the road.

    Why isn't it "conservative" to conserve?

  •  nuclear (none)
    I consider myself "Green" I am a huge envirnmentalist.

    However I really do think nuclear is the only way to go other than a complete societorial change.  Since i don't see modern civilization making such a huge change in lifestyle, I fully support Nuclear power.  BUT with the caveat that it is not run by a private for profit company or organization.  It must be a public governmental organization.

    •  yes, (none)
      It's fair to keep in perspective the certainty of climatic mayhem that coal plants provide, as opposed to the mere risk of stray neutrinos that nuclear plants pose. One problem is global and the other localised, one certain the other improbable. If I were forced to only choose between those two  i know which it would be.

      However, there are caveats. Firstly the whole nuclear chain is not carbon neutral to the remotest degree. Because uranium requires large mining operations to extract quite small amounts of metal, uranium has a very high 'embedded' emissions per gram before it even reaches the reactor.

      Secondly, as I understand it, uranium has the same problems of finity that oil and gas have. There's enough to go around at the moment but if the US did what France has done then the world might run out in short order.

      I believe that France has many 'fast breeder' reactors which produce a surplus of some fuel elements, but my understanding is that these still need to be blended with mined uranium to create a stable fuel.

      No panacea, in other words.

      I have a delay pedal and I'm not afraid to use it.

      by droneboy on Sun Apr 10, 2005 at 06:27:14 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks, Jerome (none)
    I was looking forward to this one since you promised it.  

    The US clearly has no concern about imported energy sources when it comes to electricity, but we will need to make significant expansion of our production capacity to accommodate moving our transportation fleet out of oil and onto the grid (lord, that's an ugly sentence).  Expanding nuclear as a power source is likely to be important, since we may not get alternate sources into the mix as quickly as either of us would like.

    Hey, I know.  Let's propose a plan that assumes we hit the wind targets you like, and the solar targets I've proposed.  Then we could throw both coal and nuclear on the scrapheap!

  •  discrete charm of statism (none)
    France is ruled by a class of local mandarins that are educated at several (two?) elite schools and who provide leaders for all major political parties.

    The approach of French government contradicts free-market dogmas that is fanatically championed by GOP and less fanatically by Democrats.  The dogma says that a government monopoly cannot be efficient.  We must have competition of various designs, various operators, and regulations by a federal agency, state agencies and assorted lawsuits.  It works quite well in some markets -- like telecommunication, it works badly for electricity and healthcare.

  •  I have really nothing to add (none)
    but to say thanks for the post.  It's not too often around here that you get pro-nuclear arguments.

    Even after working for years in industrial radiography and getting a rather good education in the horrors of various types of radiation exposure by interning at the NRC for a summer, I think that nuclear energy is probably our best mid-run bet on energy.  Unlike coal, oil, and to an extent gas, there are no carbon or mercury emissions from nuclear plants.  And, nuclear energy, even with massive issues like plant safety and the cost of risk associated with plant failure, CERTAINLY poses less cost on the global economy and environment than fossil fuel energy.  I don't think many people have a grasp of how much carbon and mercury coal plants put out, even after half-assed regulation, and how much that costs the environment in dollar terms.  If we have a certainty of two accidents a century that cost 200-500 billion in dollar terms, that's still less than the known cost than burning coal.  And the fear of two accidents per century is uncertain and poses uncertain costs, unlike fossil plants that have very certain environmental costs.

    Of course, I also tend not to be fair to most anti-nuke activists.  I've been egged before, while doing radiography on a wing-strut.  If we totally eliminated civilian and military applications of nuclear energy, we'd be dead of building collapse, structural steel failures, you name it.  Nuclear energy is FAR more than nukes and powerplants!  

    As a personal note, I'd like to say it never ceases to amaze the attention that yellow-and-purple Radiation Area tape can get: NONE.  You don't know how many people I've had to chase out of a radiation area when we were photographing something in the open.  I swear to GOD people will see "RADIATION AREA -0- DANGER OF DEATH -0- DO NOT CROSS" and just lift it up, and walk on past.

  •  What do you do about spent fuel? (none)
    That seems to be the biggest issue in the US.
  •  MIT Report (none)
    I thought that this MIT report on The Future of Nuclear Power was thorough and informative. Here is an excerpt from the summary:

    The study offers a number of recommendations for making the nuclear energy option viable, including:

    • Placing increased emphasis on the once-through fuel cycle as best meeting the criteria of low costs and proliferation resistance;
    • Offering a limited production tax-credit to 'first movers' - private sector investors who successfully build new nuclear plants. This tax credit is extendable to other carbon-free electricity technologies and is not paid unless the plant operates;
    • Having government more fully develop the capabilities to analyze life-cycle health and safety impacts of fuel cycle facilities;
    • Advancing a U.S. Department of Energy balanced long-term waste management R&D program.
    • Urging the DOE to establish a Nuclear System Modeling project that would collect the engineering data and perform the analysis necessary to evaluate alternative reactor concepts and fuel cycles using the criteria of cost, safety, waste, and proliferation resistance. Expensive development projects should be delayed pending the outcome of this multi-year effort.
    • Giving countries that forego proliferation- risky enrichment and reprocessing activities a preferred position to receive nuclear fuel and waste management services from nations that operate the entire fuel cycle.

    The authors of the study emphasized that nuclear power is not the only non-carbon option and stated that they believe it should be pursued as a long term option along with other options such as the use of renewable energy sources, increased efficiency, and carbon sequestration..

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