Nuclear energy is an energy released during a nuclear fusion or fission, which can be used in many ways. Indeed, whether in a civil or military context, nuclear energy has different uses. This is one of the reasons why this energy is so decried, often wrongly, by a public that refused, for the most part, its acceptance some time ago.
Nuclear physics was discovered by the physicist Henri Becquerel in a haphazard way, with radioactivity in the early 1900s. For a long time, it remained in an intermediate phase of research in order to master its properties and it is only later that this new type of energy begins to be used and democratized.
In France, the beginnings of the nuclear industry, set up between 1950 and 1960, were seen with the commissioning of uranium, heavy water and pressurized water reactors. The first French reactor producing electricity was commissioned in 1956 and the first French nuclear power plant, closed since 2011, was at Fessenheim, whose construction was decided at the end of the 1960s.
During the 1950s, the French will to develop nuclear energy found European partners and materialized with the creation of a European Atomic Energy Community, CEEA or Euratom, for civil nuclear energy. This community was created with the Euratom treaty signed in 1957 in Rome and its objective was to guarantee a secure framework for the development of nuclear energy in order to meet the challenges of supply and to guarantee energy independence but also the peaceful use of the atom. It was notably with the creation of a military nuclear program that France established itself as one of the pioneers of nuclear energy, using it at the time as a weapon of dissuasion after the war.
However, it was not until later, in the 1970s, that France clearly focused on nuclear power, and the oil crises did not challenge the legitimacy of this choice. Indeed, the motivations for this choice are economic but also environmental because, contrary to popular belief, nuclear power is a low carbon solution.
Nevertheless, so-called anti-nuclear movements persist, whose motives are often erroneous and slow down the development of nuclear power in Europe, without affecting France more than that. France continues to make progress on nuclear power and does not indeed give more importance than that to these pacifist movements which claim this source of energy as harmful and dangerous in many ways.
Nuclear power in France nowadays:
Today, with these advances, France has become the second largest producer of nuclear electricity in the world, behind the United States and ahead of China, and therefore the largest producer in Europe.
In terms of proportion to the population, France is even the world’s leading country. This energy comes from 58 active reactors spread throughout the country on 19 nuclear sites. The nuclear industry is the main source of electricity in France, which remains dependent on this form of energy, accounting for more than ¾ of French energy production since the 1990s. This dependence, which is not experienced by its neighbors, is explained by the fact that France does not have an abundance of energy alternatives such as gas, coal or oil.
The advantages of nuclear power:
Nuclear energy offers many advantages to France, beyond its good performance in terms of global warming. Like energy security, a reduced electricity bill that makes the country attractive and competitive, notably by placing it as the leading exporter in the zone, but also a sustainable creation of jobs. At the EU level, nuclear energy provides 30% of the electricity and the security of supply of 28 member countries is ensured by France. France’s supremacy in the nuclear sector can be explained by several factors, including its mastery of uranium mining and its expertise in plant construction. France therefore has a competitive know-how in this advanced technology compared to its European neighbors. This can be explained by the density of players, who are omnipresent in this sector. In France, there are approximately 2,500 companies in the nuclear industry, with 220,000 direct jobs, which are qualified and cannot be relocated, and approximately 400,000 induced jobs created by external factors. It is the third largest French industrial sector behind the aeronautics and automotive industries, and the investments made each year are substantial, averaging €1.3 billion per year.
This is since the major players in the sector are large global groups such as EDF, Orano, Alstom, Bouygues and Vinci.
But new measures could slow down its deployment:
The biggest obstacle to the nuclear industry seems to be the Energy-Climate law, which considerably tarnishes the prospects for this admittedly dangerous but low-carbon solution, with an objective of reducing its production by 50% by 2035 and an injunction to close 14 of its 58 reactors.
Indeed, this law passed in 2019 establishes a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 with a gradual exit from fossil fuels and a desire to develop renewable energy. One of the clear objectives of this law is to reduce France’s dependence on the nuclear industry. Nevertheless, under the leadership of Emmanuel Macron, nuclear power remains a long-term objective, but in a different way, with technical progress that would allow a controlled use. The difficulties are due, among other things, to the fact that the debate about nuclear power is not really informed as reflected in a study conducted by BVA in 2019. This study showed that the majority (69%) of respondents thought that nuclear power was responsible “a little” or “a lot” to produce greenhouse gases, while about 10% of respondents also thought that nuclear power produced more than coal, oil or gas. This is only a “halo effect”, which means that people think that everything pollutes, whereas, if nuclear power emits CO2, these emissions are minimal, and this can be seen more as a desire to make nuclear power a scapegoat.
Unless technical progress allows it to be saved:
Technological progress allows us to foresee the possibility of redeploying this sector, in a break with the current one, thanks to nuclear fusion, which remains conditional to its perfect mastery and the possibility of building 6 new EPRs in France. This project is the initiative of EDF, which has launched a call for tenders and submitted a file to the French government, but no decision is expected before 2023. The Flamanville EPR project has nevertheless been a great disappointment, with its cost multiplied by 4 and a delay of 10 years compared to initial expectations.
The new investments made in the nuclear industry are aimed at developing the technology to make it safer to use and to revolutionize the sector, which will therefore help to change mentalities and opinions, which are often negative towards nuclear power.
Indeed, under the impetus of Emmanuel Macron, France has announced an investment plan of € 1 billion in the new technology of small modular reactors (SMR). France’s objective is to establish its own project called Nuward. Less costly to produce, less dangerous, and easily integrated into the grid, the new small modular reactors have several advantages that make them the long-awaited alternative to nuclear power, which could well put it back on the front burner in the coming years.
These technological advances are helping to change people’s attitudes. Two surveys conducted by BVA at two different times, the first in 2019 and the second in 2021, show the positive evolution of prejudices about nuclear power, as only 15% of French people now consider nuclear power to be a handicap, compared to 34% two years earlier. To go further, 50% even consider nuclear power to be an asset that France should rely on to reduce its carbon footprint. Nevertheless, the main fear for most French people, 59%, remains the treatment that will be reserved for waste, but it should be noted that when the reactor is removed, 96% of what remains is recyclable and therefore will not be thrown away or polluting.
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