From the closure of Fessenheim to the construction of new EPRs: the reasons for a reversal.
In 2011, François Hollande won the Socialist primary by taking up his opponent Martine Aubry’s proposal to reduce the share of nuclear power in the French energy mix (from 74% to 50%), with an emblematic promise: the “gradual closure of twenty-four reactors” by 2025, including the immediate shutdown of the Fessenheim plant (Haut-Rhin).
This promise came only a few months after the serious accident at Fukushima (Japan), even though the installations of the Alsatian plant were judged “satisfactory” by the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN). It was in fact one of the keystones of the alliance between the Socialist Party and the French Green party, Europe-Ecologie-Les Verts, to win the presidential election. Thanks to this commitment, the decline of nuclear energy in France was about to initiate.
The final shutdown of the plant, which was postponed several times, finally took place in 2020, more than three years after the end of the mandate of François Hollande. If Emmanuel Macron had also promised in 2017 to implement the closure of the two Fessenheim reactors, his speech is today more balanced and questions the prospect of a gradual abandonment of nuclear power.
Two weeks ago, during the presentation of the “France 2030” plan, the President of the French Republic announced an investment of one billion euros to “develop breakthrough technologies” and in particular “small nuclear reactors”. A position indirectly reinforced a few days later by the report “Energy Futures 2050” written by RTE which highlights the difficulty of doing without nuclear power to achieve the objectives of carbon neutrality. At the same time, the report emphasizes the interest of nuclear power from an economic point of view, even if it does not go so far as to consider a scenario that goes beyond the 50% objective set by François Hollande. But the government has clearly been preparing public opinion for several weeks now for the announcement of the forthcoming construction of a dozen second-generation EPRs.
A change in the priorities of the executive that matches with a change in public perception of nuclear power. Already in May 2021, a study carried out by BVA showed that 50% of the French considered this source of energy as an asset for France. Only 15% considered that it was a handicap, whereas they were 34% in 2019. According to a more recent study, conducted by IFOP in September 2021, the French overwhelmingly (88%) want to maintain the capacity of the nuclear park whereas wind power is mostly perceived (67%) as inefficient in terms of reducing our carbon footprint. This rapid shift in opinion can be explained by a combination of three factors.
Indeed, the world of 2021 no longer looks much like the one of 2011: the priority is now on reducing greenhouse gas emissions over any other environmental and safety objective. The turmoil caused by the Fukushima disaster is fading away and becoming less urgent in the public mind. Awareness of the need to decarbonize the economy has accelerated, thanks to the Paris Agreement and the commitments made by States in this area. However, nuclear power is, along with hydroelectric power, the most decarbonised form of energy.
Germany, which was held up as an example in 2011 for having announced its total withdrawal from civil nuclear power by 2022, is now being singled out for its massive use of extremely polluting coal-fired or gas-fired power plants to compensate for the gradual closure of its nuclear plants. And its CO2 emissions per KWh are almost ten times higher than those of France.
The second factor is linked to the growing hostility of the populations towards the installation of wind turbines, whether on land or at sea, because of their various annoyances, particularly in terms of noise and visual pollution and for their negative consequences on wildlife and fishing. As wind farms develop, their local acceptability is reduced and the gap between the France of the metropolises, which is in favour of renewable energies, and rural France, which sees them as a sign of abandonment and contempt from the central Government, is growing. The President of the Republic has expressed his concern on several occasions, notably during the international summit in Pau in January 2020, about this rise of local oppositions.
Finally, the “gilets jaunes” crisis and then the Covid 19 crisis have highlighted the need to re-industrialize France and its most forgotten territories as well as to reduce its extreme dependence on foreign countries in major sectors. Beyond the ecological stakes, nuclear power is becoming an economic asset, at a time when the government, through Bruno Le Maire and Agnès Pannier-Runacher, is asserting its desire to rely on sectors of excellence, strengthening national independence.
In doing so, Emmanuel Macron is following the General de Gaulle’s strategy, who declared in 1967: “We are making nuclear power a basis for industrial development, a new development of energy.” Half a century later, nuclear power is once again acting as a basis for France’s industrial redevelopment and energy production. With one nuance: its combination with renewable energies in the electricity mix. For energy too, Emmanuel Macron is making the choice of an “at the same time” a few months before the presidential election.