Nuclear energy is the topic of the election campaign: Macron toying with mini nuclear power plants

Despite the expansion of renewable energies, France does not want to part with nuclear energy for the time being. President Macron even plans to invest in novel nuclear power plants. The technology is not yet ready for production.

Nuclear power is on the rise again in France – and surprisingly it has even become an election issue. On the one hand, President Emmanuel Macron wants to build new, small nuclear power plants (SMR), on the other hand, renewable energies are to be expanded. This is about the fight against climate change as well as protecting domestic industry – and last but not least about electricity prices.

“France is lucky because France has nuclear power,” Macron likes to emphasize with regard to CO2 emissions. The country is actually doing pretty well compared to Germany. This is mainly due to the fact that 70 percent of the electricity comes from the low-emission nuclear power plants.

Even the French Greens are now verbally pushing the nuclear phase-out, which used to be vehemently demanded, far into the future. “Nobody says that we will shut down the nuclear power plants tomorrow,” says the green presidential candidate Yannick Jadot. He reckons with 20 years until the exit. “And if it’s five years more, then that’s the way it is.”

Nuclear power as a “green investment”

In Brussels, France is currently trying to have nuclear power recognized as a “green investment”. Atomic energy “makes a significant contribution to the independence of our energy production,” says an open letter signed by France’s Minister of Economic Affairs, Bruno Le Maire, and politicians from nine other EU countries.

The classification should take place “by the end of the year”, they demanded. This would mean that new nuclear power plants could be funded with EU funds. However, there is resistance from Germany and Austria.

Meanwhile, the right-wing presidential candidates outdo each other with nuclear rhetoric. The conservative candidate Xavier Bertrand wants to have at least three new EPR power plants built, the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen six and the right-wing extremist not-yet-candidate Eric Zemmour prefers ten.

The only European pressurized water reactor (EPR) ever built in France will go online in 2023 at the earliest – eleven years later and almost four times as expensive as planned. And the final decision on the planned final storage facility for nuclear waste in Bure, Lorraine is still far from being made.

So far, only one mini-reactor is running in Russia

The mini reactors (SMR) in which Macron now wants to invest are nowhere near ready for production. A single model is currently running in Russia. French industry has little interest in the small reactors because they produce relatively little electricity and cannot replace conventional nuclear power plants.

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But nuclear power in France always has to do with national pride and sovereignty. The independence of energy production – for example from Russian gas or German coal electricity – is crucial for Macron. “We must never be too dependent on an energy source that appears attractive when prices are low,” he said recently on the sidelines of an EU summit in view of the rise in gas prices.

France has pledged to reduce the proportion of nuclear power to 50 percent by 2035, to shut down a dozen old reactors and at the same time to expand renewable energy. The planned mini-reactors will probably not change that. In the presidential election campaign, however, they could help Macron to be industry-friendly and climate-conscious at the same time. And if his plan works, there may be EU funds for the French nuclear industry in the end.