On nuclear power, can we go “much faster” as Macron wants?

STEPHANE MAHE / AFP French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the Sub-Prefecture in Saint-Nazaire after a visit at the Saint-Nazaire offshore wind farm, off the coast of the Guerande peninsula in western France on September 22, 2022. (Photo by STEPHANE MAHE / POOL / AFP)

STEPHANE MAHE / AFP

President Emmanuel Macron in Saint-Nazaire after a visit to the offshore wind farm on September 22, 2022. (Photo STEPHANE MAHE / POOL / AFP)

NUCLEAR – Open the first EPR reactors before 2035? This is the promise made by Emmanuel Macron, without specifying the new horizon chosen. Visiting Saint-Nazaire on Thursday, September 22, the President developed his will in terms of energy: on renewables, at the heart of his visit to the first French offshore wind farm, but also on the atom.

On the renewable side, the Head of State declared that he wanted to go “twice as fast”to reach the figure of one “fifty offshore wind farms” in 2050, while continuing onshore wind power. Same enthusiasm for solar, for which Emmanuel Macron raised the possibility of a “land release” : concretely, the authorization to put solar panels in industrial wastelands, or even on the edge of highways.

Remain nuclear, therefore. ” I announced the first tranche in 2035 for nuclear power. What I wish is that we go much faster “, declared the president, resuming his plans unveiled last February. He then promised 6 EPR reactors by 2035 (that of Flamanville planned for 2012 is however not in operation), and 8 additional reactors under study to meet French energy needs.

It is therefore time to display a solid boost at a time when the tension on the network is felt. An ambition which materializes with the law for the acceleration of renewables which will be passed by the Council of Ministers on September 26, and which Emmanuel Macron wants to draw inspiration from for the nuclear fleet: “We can go much faster if we simplify things, so we will be in the same logic on nuclear”.

But it’s not that simple, explains Ludovic Dupin, director of information at the French Nuclear Energy Company (SFEN).

Is it even possible to go faster as the president wishes? And for what gain?

It’s not feasible to speed up the construction part of the project, but before the concrete is laid, yes. The administrative part, environmental impact survey, building permit… Today these examinations are sequential, are done one after the other, or some of them could be done in parallel. Of course, this does not mean cutting back on safety standards or public debate. This is what Agnès Pannier-Runacher had announced, evoking for January 2023 a law “accelerating nuclear power” equivalent to what will be presented for renewables.

Is this really going to save time?

Two things are limiting. For the moment the decisions have not been made, and the law still provides for the closure of twelve reactors and not the opening of six. So a new law will be needed. Then, we need this law of simplification as quickly as possible; before the pouring of concrete, which will start in 2027 at best. The reactor will still come into operation in 2035, but we are gaining margins: the announcements made by Emmanuel Macron on the construction schedules were made in a rather tense manner. With this simplification, we will allow construction hazards.

Does it seem to you a viable strategy to want to speed up, when nuclear power raises so many questions in terms of security?

It’s really impossible to cut corners on safety. The Nuclear Safety Authority is independent. There was this hazard discovered on the current French park [plus d’une dizaine de réacteurs français sont à l’arrêt pour des raisons de corrosion], it is currently being repaired. In addition, EPRs are another technology. Finally, the important thing today is to be more autonomous, less dependent on fossil fuels, and for this the solution involves a mix of nuclear and renewable.

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