French Nuclear Phaseout

James Chenevey
February 20, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Chooz Nuclear Power Plant. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since World War II, France has invested heavily in its nuclear program, first for military purposes and later for civilian nuclear power. In 2015, France had 58 nuclear power plants like the Chooz Plant in Fig. 1 accounting for 17% of the world total according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. [1] Today, over three-quarters of France's electricity is produced by nuclear power with low electricity prices and carbon footprint per capita, an impressive and valuable feat for a country with a limited domestic supply of fossil fuel. [2] However, in response to the multiple core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, many countries considered shrinking their nuclear power programs, with Germany deciding to leave the sector completely. [3] More recently, outages at 18 reactors and a commitment to reducing the share of electricity derived from nuclear energy to 50% has brought into question the future of nuclear power in France. [4] For a number of reasons, the debate in France is particularly complex, most notably because of its deep set nuclear identity and the economic implications of its aging nuclear fleet.

France's Nuclear Identity

The inspiration for the French nuclear program was the desire to be militarily independent of the United States and the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. However, the lack of coal and hydrocarbons in France was also a strong incentive to look for alternative forms of energy. [5] In later decades, the military effort gave rise to the civilian nuclear power program and the two initiatives grew together becoming an integral part of the French identity. Although the weapons channels are distinct, cutting financing for civilian nuclear research projects would increase the cost of maintaining the nuclear arsenal. [3] Ultimately, the role of nuclear power in maintaining France's energy and military independence could mean that a French nuclear phaseout would first require a restructuring of the French identity.

Nuclear Economics

Currently, France is at an energy crossroads, with 22 of the country's 58 reactors set to reach their 40-year lifetimes within a decade. [5] To extend the lives of these reactors that have already outlived their original operating schedules would require massive financial investment and public opinion for the moment has certainly shifted in favor of reducing the nation's reliance on nuclear power. In order to maintain its current level of nuclear output, France would have to build 11 3rd generation European Pressurized Water Reactors by 2020. [4] What is more likely is that these reactors will have to operate for more than 40 years while shifting more electricity generation to other sources.


In coming years, France must make a choice to either reinvest in their nuclear energy program or look to renewables and foreign fossil fuel sources to fill their energy gap. This decision will be determined by a myriad of influences spanning from economics to political identity. Given current political opinion and the looming cost of maintaining decade old reactors, it is not out of the question that France would phase out its nuclear energy program.

© James Chenevey. 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] "BP Statistical Review of World Energy," British Petroleum, Jun 2016.

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

[3] P. Bouveret, B. Barrillot, and D. Lalanne, "Nuclear Chromosomes: The National Security Implications of a French Nuclear Exit," Bull. Atom. Sci. 69, 11 (2013).

[4] "France's Nuclear-Energy Champion is in Turmoil," The Economist, 1 Dec 16.

[5] M. Schneider, "Nuclear Power and the French Energy Transition: It's the Economics, Stupid!" Bull. Atom. Sci. 69, 18 (2013).