French Nuclear Energy

Ruslan Iskhakov
February 25, 2014

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2014


Fig. 1: Nuclear reactors in France. The numbers indicate how many reactors are found at a particular plant site. The data are from the IAEA. [2]

France nuclear energy history started with Henri Becquerel (1890, discovery of natural radioactive), followed by Pierre and Marie Curie, and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The first nuclear power plant in France was opened in 1962. The 1963 oil crisis led to a "boom" in nuclear French energy, forcing France to build other plants. According to the U.S. Energy Administration and the International Atomic Energy Agency, in 2011, France has 58 nuclear power plants, 17.5% of the world total (see Fig. 1). [1,2] The net nuclear electricity generation was 421 Twh (77.8% of overall energy production in France).

The French nuclear program is based on three key ideas: (1) centralized management, (2)close cooperation among the key industrial players and the government, (3) and the recycling of nuclear waste. [3] Centralized management reduces both construction costs and the time needed to obtain building permits. Close cooperation between industry and government enables strategic planning and coordination of research efforts. Recycling of nuclear waste decreases the amount of high-level waste and increases the supply of fuel available for future generation.

Problems of High Contribution of Nuclear Energy

According to the EIA, France has one of the lowest electricity prices for industry, about 0.06 USD/KWh, compared to the average of 0.12 USD/KWh for other European countries. [1] French nuclear generation is abundant, export of electricity being over 80-90 Twh per year. [1,4] However, do lower prices mean lower bills, and is such a high percentage of nuclear energy in electricity generation effective? The overcapacity of nuclear energy has led the government to encourage the use of electricity for space heating and hot water heating. This has significantly increased the electricity use during winter time, creating seasonal peaks. While nuclear energy is effective in providing base load, it quickly becomes inefficient in supporting peak demands compared to a gas/oil power plant. The latter is imported from other countries (25-30 Twh). The imported electricity price is not the same as the exported one. This distorts the value of the electricity export. The factors drive the average overall cost because the high electricity usage for heating and hot water has low efficiency. [5] The better option would be decreasing contribution of nuclear energy towards electricity to 40-50% and using combined cycle gas turbine for the rest. These turbines are highly effective for peak demands and produce hot water as byproduct. [6]

While France has an overcapacity of nuclear plants that could last at least till 2020, several new nuclear plant projects have been started, such as Flamnville-3 (2008). The reason is prevent a competence problem: 40% of the staff in reactor operation and maintenance will retire by 2015. [5]


France keeps developing nuclear energy, and it is often being considered as a bellwether of nuclear energy. For example, the Generation IV advanced sodium technology reactor is planned to be active by 2020. [4] However, several issues connected with nuclear energy development in France preclude calling it a true "success story" of nuclear energy development. These include inefficiency of the electricity distribution system, strategic dependence, the future competence problem, and a significant dependence on a single source of electricity.

© Ruslan Iskhakov. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] US Energy Information Administration, Monthly Energy Review, DOE/EIA-0035(2010/05), May 2010, Table 9.9.

[2] "Nuclear Power Reactors in the World," International Atomic Energy Agency, Reference Data Series No. 2, IAEA-RDS-2/26, April 2006, Table 10.

[3] E. Cue, "How France Sees Its Nuclear-Powered Future," U.S. News and World Report, 10 Mar 09.

[4] M. Schneider, A.Froggatt and S.Thomas, "2010-2011 world Nuclear Industry Status Report," Bull. Atomic Scientists 67, 60 (2011).

[5] M. Schneider, "Nuclear Power in France - Beyond the Myth, "Greens-EFA Group in the European Parliament, December 2008.

[6] N. Henkel, E. Schmid and E. Gobrecht, "Operational Flexiblity Enhancements of Combined Cycle Power Plants, Siemens AG, October 2008.