It is an astonishing paradox that Europe used to lead the world in this “clean” energy, but is now massively dissociating itself from it.
Much more so than any pandemic, it is global warming that is at the fore of global risks in the 21st century. It is crucial that nations comply with the objective fixed by the Paris agreement to limit temperature rise to a maximum of 2°C by 2100. This is essential for the speedy decarbonization of economies, which is now at the core of the new Cold War between China – which intends to reach carbon neutrality in 2060 – and the US, where Joe Biden has announced a $3,000 billion investment plan for infrastructures and the fight against global warming.
Energy, which is the primary source of carbon emissions, plays a central role. Everyone, from the IPCC to the IEA, is in agreement that the solution is in decarbonated electricity (dependent on hydraulic energy production), on speeding up renewable energy production (solar and wind energy), and on nuclear energy, which ought to produce a minimum of 11% of all electricity worldwide in 2050. Nuclear energy has the threefold advantage of being decarbonated, flexible and controllable, which makes it the perfect partner for renewable energy sources and a key asset with respect to the safety of electrical systems.
For these reasons, the nuclear industry is very dynamic throughout the world. But its center of gravity is shifting. Since 2000, China and Russia have created two-thirds of all new capacity, whereas, in the last three decades of the 20th century, three-quarters of new capacity was created in North America and Europe. It is paradoxical that Europe used to lead the world, but is now massively dissociating itself from nuclear energy. France occupies a unique position: it has the largest number of nuclear reactors in Europe, producing 71% of its electricity. With a 90% decarbonization, this amounts to 470 terawatt hours (TWh) as opposed to 900 TWh for oil and 450 TWh for gas. The government intends to increase electricity’s share in the energy mix to 50% in 2050 and to limit nuclear production to less than half of that production as from 2035, by closing 14 nuclear power stations and speeding up renewable energy sources. For electoral reasons, all decisions relating to the renewal of nuclear power stations and its financing have been suspended.
The choice that is open to France, which will have to be finalized during the next five-year presidential term of office at the latest, is clear: plan a new generation of nuclear power stations or renounce the objectives of the Paris agreement. However, the debate is being masked by political grandstanding that prevents any examination of the facts. First of all, the demand for electricity is as underestimated – at about 630 TWh in 2050 – as the contribution of renewable energies is overestimated. This is because a dangerous gamble is being taken on households and companies reducing their energy consumption and being more flexible about it. In fact, the increased dependency on electricity in decarbonizing current uses of hydrocarbons or synthetic hydrogen-based fuels means that, by the middle of the century, demand will be between 730 and 850 TWh. Also, the power required at peak hours should increase from 90 to over 130 gigawatts. As a final point, there are more and more delays in developing renewable energies because of people’s reticence towards them, based on their environmental impact – particularly negative with regard to land-based wind turbines – and because they create technical problems that put the stability of the grid at risk.
It is obvious that France has to invest in energy-saving, renewable energies, hydrogen, electricity storage technologies, reliability, and the safety of the grid.
But there has to be a planned renewal of civil nuclear power stations, with five priorities:
- Extending the lifespan of existing power stations to 60 years;
- Launching a new standardized generation of nuclear reactors;
- Supporting innovation in modular reactors, fourth generation reactors with a semi-closed circuit, and ITER’s studies of nuclear fusion at Cadarache;
- Rescuing EDF which is in virtual default because it is up against a double wall of investments and debts (€42.5 billion at the end of 2020);
- On a European level, categorizing nuclear energy as being one of the sectors that reduce carbon emissions that is eligible for investment by stimulus funding and green financing.
There will be no decarbonization of the economy without a major increase in the production and consumption of electricity. And there will be no decarbonized electricity without an ambitious nuclear program. These facts must not be denied; they should be discussed openly in France and in Europe as a whole.
(Article published in Le Point, 1st April 2021)