|Fig. 1: French power exports and imports, after Schneider. |
The strategy that countries choose to employ when developing their electricity production system is a result of many factors. One of the most important of these factors is the domestic availability of primary energy sources. Because the U.S. and China both have large domestic reserves of coal and natural gas (and these production techniques are relatively cheap), the energy systems of these countries rely heavily on these sources. However, countries that don't have abundant domestic supplies of fossil fuels find it easier to employ methods of electricity generation that don't come with the air pollution and greenhouse gas emission issues of fossil fuels. In the 1970s, France invested in developing a large nuclear power sector, with the dual aim of reducing their dependence on foreign sources of fuel and limiting the air pollution problems faced by their people.  The result of France's investment in the 1970s has been impressive: in 2007, 77% of France's electricity was produced by nuclear power.  Let's take a deeper dive into some of the issues that come with a large nuclear sector and how France has approached these problems.
During France's period of aggressive expansion of the nuclear sector, they actually overestimated the growth of their domestic electricity demand. Because nuclear reactors cannot be cycled on and off frequently, this led to an overgeneration problem during periods of low demand. France has responded to this problem in two ways: by exporting electricity to neighboring countries, and by encouraging citizens to use electricity for applications like heating and cooking. 
France exported about 85 TWh of electricity per year from 2001-2007, and they imported about a third of that amount.  Most of the imports were during peak demand periods, when the nuclear sector did not provide enough power and needed to be augmented by fossil fuel powered "peaker" plants. This trade in electricity is more viable in France's case because of their proximity to other developed countries. Another way that France deals with their overgeneration problem is through artificially increasing demand through programs that subsidize electric water heaters and space heaters. While this has worked to a degree, it has had the unintended effect of creating higher peaks in electricity demand, which increase France's reliance on peaker plants.
France has also managed to successfully navigate the rocky political waters surrounding waste reprocessing technologies and has implemented reprocessing plants that handle much of the waste produced by their reactors.  They've even begun to reprocess fuel shipped in from other countries, including Japan.  By removing the uranium and plutonium isotopes from nuclear waste, France has created a new source of fuel for their light-water reactors, and has reduced the amount of waste that they need to sequester by a factor of five.  Though there are some risks associated with reprocessing, namely the added potential for dangerous radioactive material to fall into the hands of terrorists or unstable governments, for France, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks.  The added fuel generated by these peaker plants also helps France to be less reliant on outside sources of uranium. 
Though the rise of nuclear power in France hasn't been without its problems, the overall effect of widespread adoption of nuclear technologies has been mostly positive. France has low electricity prices, a low carbon footprint per capita, and greater energy security than many other countries with limited energy resources.  Their reprocessing program makes their fuel last longer, and the rise demand response grid management of and viable large-scale energy storage options should make overgeneration less of an issue.
© Dominick Francks. 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.
 E. Cue, "How France Sees Its Nuclear-Powered Future," U.S. News and World Report, 10 Mar 09.
 M. Schneider, "Nuclear Power in France - Beyond the Myth," Greens-EFA Group in the European Parliament, December 2008.
 K. Ling, "Is the Solution to the U.S. Nuclear Waste Problem in France?" New York Times, 18 May 09.