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PARIS As French President Emmanuel Macron circles Washington starting Wednesday for the Biden administration’s first state visit, his plans for a nuclear power renaissance are high on his agenda. His entourage includes major players in France’s nuclear power industry, who will look to the French leader to help boost the development and export of their technology, including smaller and more versatile reactors.
But there could hardly have been a trickier time to promote French nuclear know-how.
As Macron prepared to fly to Washington, France relied on planes traveling in the opposite direction to keep its nuclear-dependent power grid from collapsing. American and Canadian contractors were flown in to help after security concerns forced the closure of half of the country’s nuclear power plants. As of last week, 23 out of 56 were still offline, due to concerns about corrosion cracks and a backlog of inspections related to the pandemic.
This year could have been the opportunity for the French nuclear industry to demonstrate the promise announced by Macron. In February, he announced that the country intended to build up to 14 new reactors by 2050. A few days later, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe began to divert Russian fossil fuels. Countries that had already chosen to abandon nuclear power suddenly became interested again.
But instead of strengthening its position as an energy exporter, France had to import electricity from Germany, the country hardest hit by Russia’s abandonment. And Britain, which normally depends on France for energy to get through the winter, talks about having to encourage people to turn off their ovens and dishwashers to avoid blackouts.
Other French neighbors, including Belgium, Switzerland and parts of Italy, could be under even more pressure due to French reactor problems, said Clément Bouilloux, country director for France at the consultancy in France. EnAppSys energy.
Everyone relied on French nuclear power plants, he said.
The situation has tarnished France’s reputation as a leader in nuclear energy and may have contributed to the country missing out on key contracts. Only a few weeks ago, the French public energy company EDF lost the first part of a 40 billion dollar contract for the first Polish nuclear power plant to the benefit of the American company Westinghouse.
While the United States and France are aligned in their response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they are often competitors when it comes to civilian nuclear power.
Is nuclear energy green? France and Germany are on opposite sides.
But with Russia and more recently China having become dominant forces in this market, French officials say transatlantic partnerships would benefit them and the United States.
We have a solid base, said a French official, speaking on condition of anonymity for protocol reasons, and we have the same challenges.
Energy consultancy Enerdata said in an assessment last year that while the United States had historic leadership in the sector, its nuclear power industry has lagged behind Russia and China.
According to the International Energy Agency, almost 90% of the world’s new reactors in the past five years are of Chinese or Russian design. The two countries also control more than 60% of the world’s converted uranium, needed to produce nuclear energy.
But amid the lingering effects of the pandemic and Russia’s continued invasion of Ukraine, domestic economic downturns and international sanctions will be a stress test for Russia’s and China’s export potential, wrote Sung-Mi Kim, an international security researcher, in a recent analysis. for Chatham House.
Bolder efforts by the United States, which is still the only country in the world with more operational power plants than France, could accelerate research and development on competing technologies and potentially pave the way for cooperation.
But it could also mean fiercer competition between Western allies. When US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm announced the selection of Westinghouse to build the Polish nuclear plant last month, she celebrated it as a clear message to Russia and a project that will support or create more than 100 000 jobs for American workers.
France largely earned its reputation as a leader in nuclear energy amid the oil crisis of the 1970s, which sparked a wave of new reactor construction, said Alexandre Danthine, senior partner at Aurora Energy Research.
But as existing power plants continued to produce ample amounts of cheap electricity, interest in building additional reactors waned. Technological know-how disappeared when workers retired or moved abroad, and the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in 2011 raised the question of whether new nuclear power plants would ever be built in France .
The industry’s steady decline has only been reversed in recent years, when Macron began promoting nuclear as a way for Europe to achieve energy independence without having to increase carbon emissions.
Macron has acknowledged that French industry has fallen behind, but he has defended his ability to recover, in recent months concluding cooperation agreements in the field of nuclear energy with countries such as India and Great Britain. Brittany.
Macron is due to attend a session on nuclear power on Wednesday, alongside four French cabinet members and several leaders of the country’s main nuclear power companies and its state regulator, the Lyse Palace said last week.
A French official added on Monday that one area in which France anticipates possible mutual interests is the development of small modular reactors (SMRs).
SMRs produce less energy than traditional nuclear power plants, but could be produced faster and on a larger scale.
This could help counter some of the main criticisms of nuclear power, namely that building large nuclear power plants is expensive and can take decades, while other renewable energy sources, including wind turbines and solar panels , can be operational in months or years and are increasingly inexpensive.
Critics often point the finger at France’s large pressurized water reactors, or EPRs, which are supposed to offer advances in safety and efficiency over conventional reactors while producing less waste. But the first such factory in France has been repeatedly delayed since construction began in 2007.
France is still betting on EPRs, of which it aims to build at least six others by 2050, but the smallest modular reactors seem to be the most promising area for international growth.
While countries around the world are still racing to develop designs, Russia’s Akademik Lomonosov floating nuclear power plant already started operating in 2020.
We don’t really master this technology, Bouilloux said.
Franco-American cooperation would not be without precedent. France’s nuclear expansion was largely possible because France struck a deal to use American technology, he said.
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