A Survey of France's Nuclear Energy Program

Evan Burke
March 22, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


France's nuclear program was conceived and developed out of necessity. In the post-WWII era, the country's reconstruction and economic development efforts required significant usage of domestic fossil fuels. However, France's resources were limited, and thus it was forced to turn to foreign sources to supplement its own supply. Oil crises in 1956 and 1973 highlighted France's energy dependence and brought about higher costs, and the reduction of this energy dependence became central to French energy policy post-1973 as its former import-heavy strategy became unsustainable. [1] In its search for energy independence, France turned to nuclear energy, and has subsequently become one of the world's foremost generators of nuclear power.

France's expansion of its nuclear program is considered to be the most successful project of its kind in the history of the industrialized world. Development was coordinated by the state's national utility, EDF (French Electricity) and the state R&D agency, CEA (Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission), received strong political support, and remained streamlined with relatively few other outside actors or organizations. [2] The duration of construction projects during France's nuclear build-up was short by international standards, allowing the country to strengthen its program more quickly than other nations, with about 60 nuclear reactors being built between 1970 and 1998. [1] Most of these were Pressurized Water Reactors (PWRs), built under the license of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation. [1] Approximately three quarters of all French reactors were built within 8 years, a feat only achieved in 35% of US reactors. [2]

Current Nuclear Program

The nuclear program is very centralized around government institutions. All of France's current reactors have been built by the AREVA group (a conglomerate of formerly separate government-controlled entities such as Framatome and COGEMA) and are operated by EDF, both of which are under majority ownership by the French state. [2] France's total output of nuclear-based energy is the equivalent of approximately 100 million tons of oil, accounting for 17% of the world nuclear output, second in only to the United States. [3] Unlike the US, however, France derives most of its energy from nuclear power, with the output of its 58 operational reactors accounting for over 70 percent of the country's total energy demands. [3,4]

Future Endeavors

The majority of research and development for nuclear technology continues to be conducted by the CEA. R&D efforts are working towards the development of a fourth Generation reactor prototype that utilizes advances sodium technology by 2020. [4] France is also developing an underwater nuclear reactor prototype through its naval defense company, DCNS. [5]

© Evan Burke. 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] D. Finon and C. Staropoli, "Institutional and Technological Co-Evolution in the French Electronuclear Industry," Ind. Innov. 8, 179 (2001).

[2] A. Grubler, "The Costs of the French Nuclear Scale-Up: A Case of Negative Learning By Doing," Energy Policy 38, 5174 (2010).

[3] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2016," British Petroleum, June 2016.

[4] R. Ishkakov, "French Nuclear Energy," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.

[5] M. Nazir, "France's Underwater Nuclear Reactor," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.