The Push to Cut Nuclear Energy in France

May Hlaing
November 13, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: The Bugey Nuclear Power Plant is located in Bugey in the Saint-Vulbas commune, about 75 km from the Swiss border. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

France has been a world leader in the utilization and implementation of nuclear energy since the 1960s when the French government began making heavy initial investments in the industry following the oil crisis. [1] In 2007, 77% of France's electricity came from nuclear sources, allowing them a significant degree of energy independence. [2] According to the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, France consumed 495 terawatt-hours of electricity, generated 551 TWh and exported 47 TWh in 2013, the most recent data available said. This generation mix has averted 31 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. [1] Despite the importance of the role nuclear energy plays in France, the recent government has made moves to reduce their reliance on nuclear to 50% from 77% by 2025, which translates into 17 reactors being shut down. The feasibility of this goal, however, remains to be seen. [3]

Why the Cuts?

Nicolas Hulot, Frances environment minister, says the move aims to diversify the types of renewable energy that France relies on, but the move likely also comes from the aging, costly nature of the nuclear reactors. Frances nuclear plants are typically built for a planned lifespan of 40 years and at this point the average plant is more than 30 years old. 22 of France's 58 reactors will reach their 40 year mark by 2022 and the oldest of the bunch has experienced problems with leaks in the recent past. [3] One such reactor is the Bugey Nuclear Power Plant shown in Fig. 1, which has been in operation since 1972.

Another factor contributing to the reductions in nuclear reliance is the push towards greener sources. Électricité de France, which operates all of the nation's nuclear reactors, wants their licenses extended by 20 years, but has faced problems both technically and politically in achieving this exttension. Altogether, its capacity is 63 gigawatts, which is about three-quarters of France's electricity generation. Furthermore, critics say that the billions it will cost to make upgrades on these nuclear plants is money that could otherwise be spent developing the country's green energy program. [3]

Alternatives Moving Forward

The French energy agency ADEME issued a report in 2014 stating that it is technically and economically feasible for France to switch to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. [4] This report, however, has since been disputed by numerous sources that argue that the points made in the report were not based on technical realities. [5] Realistically, France will have to extend the life spans of a subset of reactors in order to allow for a slow transition into greener energy sources without disrupting France's energy supply. [5] All the while, low prices for fossil fuels like oil and coal are undermining incentives for clean energy deployment.

As of September, the French government plans to invest 20 billion euros in an energy transition plan, including 9 billion euros towards improved energy efficiency, 7 billion for renewables and 4 billion on the switch to cleaner vehicles. The 7 billion that is dedicated to renewable energy is meant to boost the growth of French renewables by 70% over the next five years. [6] These environmentally conscious investments, drafted by economist Jean Pisani-Ferry and presented by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Monday, are part of a 57 billion-euro plan to run from 2018 to 2022.


As France transitions away from its reliance on nuclear energy due to aging reactors and costly repairs, it enters an era of uncertainty in energy independence. Continuing the nuclear program would cost hundreds of billions of euros, but it will also be difficult to transition to a source that will be able to provide 70% of the country's energy. Looking forward, however, France has begun to invest in its renewable offerings.

© May Hlaing. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] U. Irfan, "France Loses Enthusiasm for Nuclear Power," Scientific American, 29 Jun 15.

[2] D. Francks, "Nuclear Development in France," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2016.

[3] K. Silverstein, "France May Cut Its Nuclear Energy Fleet, Which Is Core To Its Economy," Forbes, 12 Jul 17.

[4] "ADEME Energy Transition Scenarios 2030/2050," French Environment and Energy Management Agency [Agence de l'Environnement et de la Maîtries de l'Energie], May 2014.

[5] G. De Clercq, "Renewables Cannot Replace Nuclear in France Yet : EDF Exec," Reuters, 19 May 16.

[6] B. Felix, "France to Invest 20 Billion Euros in Energy Transition," Reuters, 25 Sep 17.