Nuclear Power in France: Beyond the Myth

The general message is clear: in France nuclear power works, in 2007 providing 77% of the electricity in the country and 47% of all nuclear electricity in the EU. “The requests by countries that wish to profit from that clean and cheap source of energy are legitimate”, claims French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. But does it really work that well and is it all that clean and cheap in France?

See also a related presentation on this topic by the author. 

France is amongst the top economic powers in the world and it has considerable political influence on the international level. The country has the seventh largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP, in 2006), the eighth largest primary energy consumption (in 2007) and by far the most foreign tourists' visits worldwide. With over 63 million inhabitants, France has the second largest population in the EU behind Germany.

French energy policy has considerable international influence in particular through a constant strong representation at the Directorate General of Transport and Energy (DG TREN) of the European Commission3 and through other organisations like the International Energy Agency (IEA) of the OECD. The IEA has increased remarkably its pro-nuclear stance since the term of  Claude Mandil as Executive Director (2003-2007) began. Mandil is a member of the Corps des Mines, a French State elite of engineers that has designed, pushed through and implemented the nuclear program in France, with its members holding key positions in ministries, industry and State agencies.

Industry and utility representatives, diplomats and civil servants have been highly successful in depicting the nuclear program as a great achievement, leading to a great level of energy and oil independence and carbon free power.

With nuclear power gaining increasing acceptance in the European Union and elsewhere, it is worthwhile to have a closer look at the "French model". To understand the overall impact of the French nuclear energy strategy, it is necessary to look beyond the number of kilowatt hours produced.Many of the impacts are system effects that are not obvious at first sight.