Thirty-five years ago, a few days after the Chernobyl disaster, authorities throughout Europe alerted the population to the radioactive cloud. All of them? No. In France, where more than thirty nuclear reactors were already in operation, the authorities waited several weeks before acknowledging that the cloud had passed over the country.
This commentary is part of our dossier "Nuclear Power in Europe: 35 Years After the Chernobyl Disaster".
Today, France's 56 nuclear reactors still produce a very large share of the country's electricity: in 2020, 67.1% of total production came from nuclear power – and this at a time when many countries, such as its neighbour Germany, are committed to phasing out nuclear power: how can these differences be explained, and what is the state of nuclear power in France?
Nuclear power: nothing may (should) tarnish a sacred marker of France’s power
The attitude towards the Chernobyl incident revealed a French singularity. Nuclear power, the flagship of the industry, is a sacred marker of France's power and a real source of pride: nothing, or almost nothing, may tarnish its image. The 'success' of the French nuclear industry is a kind of revenge on the past, as shown by this extract from a 1957 law: 'France, which was unable to win the battle of coal in the 19th century, intends to enter the nuclear age with the certainty of success'.
In the 1970s, the French anti-nuclear movement was one of the most active in the world, even inspiring and nourishing the struggle on the other side of the Rhine. Since the Franco-German mobilisations in Cattenom, Creys Malville and Wyhl, the paths of the two movements have diverged. In Germany, the 1980s saw the movement grow stronger and more structured: independent institutes were created and became firmly established in the landscape, and nuclear safety entered the government. In France, the Socialist President François Mitterrand, who was elected on a nuclear-critical platform, used various tactics to muzzle the historical activists by integrating them into numerous governmental bodies, where they could exercise their expertise while remaining in the minority in the face of the French technostructure, which was largely in favour of the nuclear programme.
Over the following decades, the French population – which, in 1974, when the nuclear plan was announced, was not asked its opinion, and which Mitterrand promised a referendum that never took place – had a divided and shifting opinion towards nuclear energy. To achieve this, the state and its energy arm, EDF, have not been idle, and have not spared any means. A veritable propaganda effort was thus undertaken to convince the French population, as shown by EDF's advertising campaigns in the 1990s: "my drill is electric and therefore nuclear".
While President Nicolas Sarkozy swept aside doubts and criticism following the Fukushima accident in March 2011, the arrival in office of François Hollande in 2012 gave hope to opponents of nuclear power that the political consensus on the subject would change: for the second time (after Mitterrand in 1981), a Socialist candidate was elected on a programme limiting the use of nuclear energy, thanks to a governmental agreement with the Greens. But when it comes to nuclear power in France, history repeats itself: although François Hollande did indeed pass a law providing for a reduction in the share of nuclear power in the electricity mix from 75% to 50% by 2025, no concrete strategy to meet this objective has been implemented and the Socialist president did not make good on his commitment to close the Fessenheim plant before the end of his term.
Emmanuel Macron: “Champion of the Earth… and of Atom”?
Although candidate Macron has always been in favour of nuclear power, he warned during the presidential campaign that he would be vigilant on the issues of risks and costs. Since his election, however, the facts speak for themselves: despite the choice of several Ministers of Ecology who have openly displayed their opposition to nuclear power, and the effective closure of the Fessenheim plant, the President and the parliamentary majority do not intend to call into question the country's industrial and energy flagship. The environmental activist and then Minister of Ecology, Nicolas Hulot, although firmly opposed to nuclear power, was therefore forced to announce the postponement of the objective of reducing the share of nuclear power to 50% of the mix until 2035. In recent months, President Emmanuel Macron has been much more proactive in defending the nuclear industry: "I need nuclear power. If I close down nuclear power tomorrow, what will I do?".
While the current Minister of Ecology, Barbara Pompili, intends to put all the alternatives on the table in order to make a decision, the national company EDF sees it differently: the national energy company is planning to build 6 new reactors (EPR, European Pressurized Reactor) from 2023 onwards. EDF's managers are working hard: the sites for the new reactors have been defined and the company's subsidiary FRAMATOME is already launching the construction of components for future EPRs in its factory in Le Creusot. The objective is clear, " to be ready to launch the construction as soon as the State has decided on the commitment of this major industrial programme ". More broadly, and under the cover of climate policy, the State is trying to create the necessary outlets to ensure the profitability of the industry and to lock in public opinion on its indispensability. Nuclear diplomacy on a European scale to sell power plants to countries seeking to decarbonise their mix, an attempt to integrate nuclear power as "green energy" into the European taxonomy so that it can be considered a "green" investment and benefit from specific funding and a hydrogen strategy openly presented as a new outlet for the industry: the government and the national company are active on all fronts.
Here again, history is repeating itself. As Sezin Topçu analyses, in the 1970s, "the main part of their strategy was to go as quickly as possible in setting up the sites to make the choice of nuclear power irreversible - materially”. It is difficult, in view of the agitation in all directions and EDF's zeal to push forward the programme to build new EPRs, not to see a similar strategy here.
France is at a crossroads
However, France is now at a crossroads. Decisions must be taken in the next few years to ensure the stability of supply. EDF is in a disastrous financial situation and faced with a serious industrial failure with the Flamanville EPR: "to the 50 billion euros already earmarked to extend the life of the 56 reactors from forty to fifty years, must be added the 46 billion euros for dismantling the units that must be shut down by 2035 and beyond, and another 46 billion euros planned to build six new EPR reactors to replace them," points out Jean-Christophe Féraud - and this last sum seems to be wildly underestimated in view of the costs of the first French EPR currently under construction in Flamanville, which could reach nearly 20 billion euros.
The government is seeking, in discussion with Brussels, a solution to restructure EDF – the strongly contested Hercule plan would see EDF split into three entities: a 100% nationalised entity taking over the nuclear activities and electricity transportation networks, a second taking over the hydraulic activities and a last entity, quoted on the stock exchange, taking over the renewable energies and electricity distribution. As pointed out by the unions, this means 'nationalising the losses and privatising the profits'. By choosing to invest massively in nuclear power, in this financially complicated situation, EDF would above all compromise its capacity to invest in renewable energies. And this at a time when many of its European competitors (recently ENEL in Italy, Iberdrola in Spain) are announcing colossal investment plans in this area.
French opinion remains divided: in a recent KANTAR survey for the Heinrich Böll Foundation, 41% believe that it is possible to get out of nuclear power within 20 to 30 years, compared with 40% who believe that it is not possible. But when asked about future investments, 64% of French people believe that priority should be given to investing in renewable energies and only 10% of French people believe that priority should be given to investing in modernising the nuclear fleet and extending the operating life of power plants.
The professor of history and author of an essay on France’s relationship with ecology, Michael Bess, reflects on the launch of the nuclear programme in the 1960s and 70s: "because of the centralised and top-heavy structure of the French state, a relatively small group of technocrats and politicians had made a choice for the country as a whole, moving the nation decisively down the nuclear path, with consequences that would decisively affect the population and the territory for at least the next century”. In France, the government is quick to hold a referendum on the climate, but no government seems willing to risk asking the French people about the country's energy policy.
The decision on whether or not to launch a new nuclear programme will commit the country to colossal investment volumes over several decades: does it not deserve a genuine, balanced democratic debate, based on rational elements and independent studies, which would make it possible to put all the options on the table and allow the population to form an informed opinion and make a decision? For this to happen, the small community of the nuclear industry must agree to do something that it has clearly always feared: to enter the democratic arena on an equal footing. One thing is certain: while many potential candidates and parties are positioning themselves on the subject - the PS is once again showing itself to be more critical, while the right is remobilising for the atom and against wind energy - nuclear power will be at the heart of the debates of the 2022 presidential elections in France.
 Energy democracy: Germany's Energiewende to renewables, by Craig Morris and Arne Jungjohann.
 (with the creation in 1986 of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety)
 According to an IPSOS poll in August 1986, 42% of French people think that nuclear power plants are "worth the effort" as opposed to 42% who think that they represent "unacceptable dangers", but 52% are against the construction of new plants (as opposed to 37% in favour) https://www.ipsos.com/fr-fr/nucleaire-accident-information-secu-rite
 “This is not the time for hasty choices that show only one thing, a lack of composure," he said, in an explicit criticism of Angela Merkel's decision
 “LA DÉMOCRATIE ATOMISÉE ? Le nucléaire à la française”, Entretien avec Sezin Topçu, Propos recueillis par Alice Sternberg pour Ecorev
 Michael Bess, La France vert clair, Écologie et modernité technologique 1960-2000, Seyssel, Champ Vallon, 2011