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  • Writer's pictureRomain Duchet-Suchaux

The French nuclear industry rebirth - Part 2

In the first part of this series dedicated to nuclear energy in France, the French nuclear industry rebirth - Part 1, we saw how nuclear power is a tool that is seen as essential for meeting current and future energy challenges. Today, we invite you to go back in time and look at the eventful history of the nuclear industry in France.

At the beginning of 2022, the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, presented the France 2030 investment plan, aimed at catching up with the French industrial backlog, particularly in the nuclear sector. This announcement breaks with two decades of "nuclear winter" since the Messmer plan of 1974. The latter allowed the development in France of a cutting-edge industry, internationally recognised in the 2000s.

In the 1980s, the speed of deployment was much higher than the current development challenges

From 1963 to 1972, Électricité de France (EDF) started up six first-generation reactors with a peak power of 500 MW per reactor.

It was from 1974 onwards that the sector experienced its boom, with the launch of the Messmer plan following the oil crisis. During this period, 34 units of 900 MW were deployed, with up to 5 units built (i.e., 4 500 MW) per year in the 1980s. This rate of development is much higher than 2050 target (8 to 14 EPR reactors planned according to RTE over 25 years).

These developments have enabled France to build a particularly competitive and low-carbon electricity supply. Even today, the country produces electricity at a much lower cost than its European neighbours, and its electricity production represents less than 5% of France's greenhouse gas emissions.

Since the 2000s, a "nuclear winter”

Despite the dominant position of the French nuclear industry on the international scene, its decline began in 1998 when the Jospin government decided to put an end to the Superphenix project (a joint German, Italian and French nuclear power plant program). This marked the beginning of ambivalent policies on nuclear power, alternating between timid investment under Nicolas Sarkozy and a decline under François Hollande, who wanted to reduce the share of nuclear power in the French electricity mix to 50% following the Fukushima disaster in 2011.

The result of these policies was a sharp decline in the production of new reactors. After a peak in construction between 1980 and 1985, during which more than 35,000 MW were built in parallel, the annual volume of new power plant construction collapsed to 5,000 MW in the 1990s, then to 1,000 MW since 2000. The skills of the French industry have therefore mechanically been reduced to a level well below that of the 1980s.

Flamanville, the latest project, beyond its innovative character, demonstrates the current difficulty of EDF and its suppliers to carry out the construction of a power plant on French territory (10 years of delay, costs multiplied by 3.3, i.e. 12.4 billion euros).

Important training and recruitment issues, driven by the renewed popularity of the sector

Today, public opinion is in favour of nuclear power. According to an IFOP study dating from September 2022, 75% of French people are in favour of nuclear energy production, compared with 37% according to the same study dating from 2012, after Fukushima. This change in mentality is perceptible even within parties traditionally opposed to the atom: 54% of Europe Ecologie Les Verts (a historically anti-nuclear party) supporters now say they are at least in favour of developing new capacity to compensate for the dismantling or repair of current reactors, compared with 46% in favour of stopping nuclear power.

Another sign of a change in mentality among young people is that engineering schools are seeing an increase in the number of students specializing in the atom, after decades of difficulty in filling the benches of nuclear courses.

Thix is good news for the industry, which is currently facing a major labour shortage. This situation is doubly problematic since, in parallel with the production and maintenance of the French nuclear fleet, the industry must also carry out the construction project for six new EPRs under the France 2030 plan.

In order to stay on track, EDF must recruit 10,000 to 15,000 people per year over the period 2023-2030, in more than 80 different professions (engineers, technicians and workers, etc.). By way of comparison, over the period 2019-2022, EDF recruited 5,000 people per year.

Thus, whatever one's opinion, the economic outlook for nuclear power in France is good. With an ambitious investment plan for new power plants and a favourable opinion of nuclear power, France is giving itself the means to achieve its ambitions. However, recruitment remains a step to be overcome. Training and recruiting a workforce in this sector will not be easy, and for good reason: each job requires a great deal of expertise. In our next and final section on nuclear energy, we will look at the challenges of nuclear jobs.

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