French Energy Minister Royal reverses course on Hollande’s plan to close reactors

Energy Minister Segolene Royal tells Parliament current plants must have life extensions beyond 40 years and new units must be built when the  old ones wear out

segolene royalIn an unambiguous reversal and repudiation of French PM Hollande’s politically expedient deal with Greens last October to begin phasing out French nuclear reactors, Energy Minister Segolene Royal (right) said the country would commit to two paths to sustain nuclear energy for electrical power generation.

First, French state-owned EDF would invest in safety upgrades to existing reactors and other improvements that would give some units in the current fleet life extensions of up to 60 years. Second, she said that France would commit to a program of construction of a “new generation of reactors” which will replace older units when they reach the end of their service lives.

The turn around comes following an effort by Hollande to gain support for his controversial government budget bill last October by offering the minority Greens a proposed policy of reducing France’s reliance on atomic energy from 75% of electricity generation to 50% and to close reactors once they hit the 40 year mark. Hollande’s public approval ratings, in the record low teens, made the future of his government questionable. An alliance with the Greens would give him more clout in Parliament.

Hollande’s plan wouldn’t just affect France. It would also affect neighboring countries who rely on France’s export of its electricity to them. His short term expediency would have long term consequences for France and for western Europe.

France has 58 nuclear reactors producing 63 Gwe of power (WNA). Over one-third of them, with electrical power ratings of 900 MW, are approaching the 40+ line in the sand. To operate beyond 40 years the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) would have to assess each unit and extend its license by a specific term of years.

The cost of reactor upgrades to operate beyond 40 years is estimated by EDF to be $65 billion over the next decade. Electricity rate increases to pay for the upgrades are also likely, but they will be less than if there was a 25% or 14 nuclear reactors fewer generating electricity. Under such a scenario the country could face electricity shortages, possible brownouts, and soaring bills for electricity based on limited supply.

Royal told Parliament that nuclear energy is a key element of France’s economy and that the expertise it has developed within the industry is a value that the nation cannot lose. The French Parliament must still act on the pending “Energy Transition Bill” which has cleared the lower House and is now being taken up by the Senate.

As Royal was announcing her policy reversing Hollande’s proposal, state owned nuclear giant Areva was in the midst of planning its financial recovery. The firm announced a new supervisory board, new CEO, and said that within a month it would announce a new strategy for growth.

One element of the strategy is that the firm will build that next generation of reactors for France. It is unthinkable, with the government holding 85% of the firm’s stock, that any outside firm would be hired to build new reactors in France.

Even so Areva must prove it can complete the current project at Flammanville, which is running several years behind schedule with accompanying increases in the budget. The 1600 MW EPR contains passive and active safety features that place it in the category of a Generation III+ design.

Royal (61) and Hollande (60) have a long history together. She is the mother of his four children, but in 2007 they separated after the French news media revealed a long standing affair by Hollande with another woman. The two never formally tied the knot in a legal marriage calling it a “bourgeois practice.”

These circumstances haven’t prevented them from continuing to pursue the socialist political views that both developed in the late 1970s while students at the prestigious École nationale d’administration (ENA). Graduates from the school populate the top ranks of government and business in France. Royal ran twice for high office. She was the Socialist candidate in the 2007 French presidential election, but lost to Nicolas Sarkozy on May 2007

As Energy Minister, with responsibility for the French nuclear power program, she wields enormous influence over the future of the French economy. Her pragmatic opposition to Hollande’s plan is based on its likely negative effects on French industry, jobs, and export revenues.

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One Response to French Energy Minister Royal reverses course on Hollande’s plan to close reactors

  1. eknuckle says:

    Great article; concise and informative. I wasn’t aware of the relationship between the two until you pointed it out. French politics; is it good cop vs. bad cop or the wrath of a rejected lover? Who can tell.

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