Nuclear power in France

Nuclear power is a major source of energy in France, with a 40% share of energy consumption in 2015. Nuclear power is the largest source of electricity in the country, with a generation of 416.8 TWh, or 76.3% of the country’s total production of 546 TWh, the highest percentage in the world.

Électricité de France (EDF) – the country’s main electricity generation and distribution company – manages the country’s 58 power reactors. EDF is substantially owned by the French Government, with around 85% shares in government hands.

As of 2012, France’s electricity price to household customers is the seventh-cheapest amongst the 28 members of the European Union, and also the seventh-cheapest to industrial consumers, with a rate of €0.14 per kWh to households and €0.07 per kWh to industrial consumers. France was the biggest electricity exporter in the EU in 2012, exporting 45TWh of electricity to its neighbours. With very inclement weather, when demand exceeds supply, France infrequently becomes a net-importer of electricity in these rare cases, because of the lack of more flexible generating plants.

France’s nuclear power industry has been called “a success story” that has put the nation “ahead of the world” in terms of providing cheap energy with low CO2 emissions.


France has a long relationship with nuclear power, starting with Henri Becquerel’s discovery of natural radioactivity in the 1890s and continued by famous nuclear scientists like Pierre and Marie Curie.

Before World War II, France had been mainly involved in nuclear research through the work of the Joliot-Curies. In 1945 the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF) created the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique (CEA) governmental agency, and Nobel prize winner Frédéric Joliot-Curie, member of the French Communist Party (PCF) since 1942, was appointed high-commissioner. He was relieved of his duties in 1950 for political reasons (Cold War), and would be one of the 11 signatories to the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955. The CEA was created by Charles de Gaulle on 18 October 1945. Its mandate is to conduct fundamental and applied research into many areas, including the design of nuclear reactors, the manufacturing of integrated circuits, the use of radionuclides for medical treatments, seismology and tsunami propagation, and the safety of computerized systems.

Nuclear research was discontinued for a time after the war because of the instability of the Fourth Republic and the lack of finances available. However, in the 1950s a civil nuclear research program was started, a by-product of which would be plutonium. In 1956 a secret Committee for the Military Applications of Atomic Energy was formed and a development program for delivery vehicles started. In 1957, soon after the Suez Crisis and the diplomatic tension with both the USSR and the United States, French president René Coty decided the creation of the C.S.E.M. in what was then French Sahara, a new nuclear testing facility replacing the CIEES testing facility. (See France and nuclear weapons.)

The first nuclear power plant by EDF in France was opened in 1962.

Messmer Plan

As a direct result of the 1973 oil crisis, on 6 March 1974 Prime Minister Pierre Messmer unexpectedly announced what became known as the ‘Messmer Plan’, a huge nuclear power program aimed at generating all of France’s electricity from nuclear power. At the time of the oil crisis most of France’s electricity came from foreign oil. Nuclear power allowed France to compensate for its lack of indigenous energy resources by applying its strengths in heavy engineering. The situation was summarized in a slogan: “In France, we do not have oil, but we have ideas.”

The announcement of the Messmer Plan, which was enacted without public or parliamentary debate, also led to the foundation of the Groupement des scientifiques pour l’information sur l’énergie nucléaire (Association of Scientists for Information on Nuclear Energy), formed after around 4,000 scientists signed a petition of concern over the government’s action, known as the Appeal of the 400 after the 400 scientists who initially signed it.

The plan envisaged the construction of around 80 nuclear plants by 1985 and a total of 170 plants by 2000. Work on the first three plants, at Tricastin, Gravelines, and Dampierre started the same year and France installed 56 reactors over the next 15 years.

Recent developments

Following the 2011 Fukushima I nuclear accidents, the head of France’s nuclear safety agency has said that France needs to upgrade the protection of vital functions in all its nuclear reactors to avoid a disaster in the event of a natural calamity, adding there was no need to close any plants. “There is a need to add a layer to protect safety mechanisms in reactors that are vital for the protection of the reactor such as cooling functions and electric powering,” Jacques Repussard, head of the IRSN, said. Opinion polls show support for atomic energy has dropped since Fukushima. Forty percent of the French “are ‘hesitant’ about nuclear energy while a third are in favor and 17 percent are against, according to a survey by pollster Ifop published November 13”.

In February 2012, President Sarkozy decided to extend the life of existing nuclear reactors beyond 40 years, following the Court of Audit decision that this is the best option as new nuclear capacity or other forms of energy would be more costly and available too late. Within ten years 22 out of the 58 reactors will have been operating for over 40 years. The court expects EDF’s projected investment programme in existing plant, including post Fukushima safety improvements, will add between 9.5% and 14.5% to generation costs, taking costs to between 37.9 and 54.2 EUR/MWh. Generation costs from the new Flamanville EPR reactor are estimated to be at least in the 70 to 90 EUR/MWh range, depending on construction outcome. Academics at Paris Dauphine University forecast that domestic electricity prices will rise by about 30% by 2020.

Following François Hollande’s victory in the 2012 presidential election, it is thought that there may be a partial nuclear phaseout in France. This follows a national debate in the run-up to the election, with President Nicolas Sarkozy backing nuclear power and François Hollande proposing a cut in nuclear power’s electricity contribution by more than a third by 2025. It seems certain that Hollande will at least order the closure of the Fessenheim Nuclear Power Plant, probably by 2017, where there has been an ongoing closure campaign due to concerns about seismic activity and flooding.

Active efforts by the French government to market the advanced European Pressurized Reactor have been hampered by cost overruns, delays, and competition from other nations, such as South Korea, which offer simpler, cheaper reactors.

In 2015, the National Assembly voted that by 2025 only 50% of France’s energy will be produced by nuclear plants. Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot noted in November 2017 that this goal is unrealistic, postponing the reduction to 2030 or 2035.

In 2016, following a discovery at Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant, about 400 large steel forgings manufactured by Le Creusot Forge since 1965 have been found to have carbon-content irregularities that weakened the steel. A widespread programme of reactor checks was started involving a progressive programme of reactor shutdowns, likely to continue over the winter high electricity demand period into 2017. This caused power price increases in Europe as France increased electricity imports, especially from Germany, to augment supply. As of late October 2016, 20 of France’s 58 reactors are offline. These steel quality concerns may prevent the regulator giving the life extensions from 40 to 50 years, that had been assumed by energy planners, for many reactors. In December 2016 the Wall Street Journal characterised the problem as a “decades long cover up of manufacturing problems”, with Areva executives acknowledging that Le Creusot had been falsifying documents.

Management and economics

Électricité de France (EDF) – the country’s main electricity generation and distribution company – manages the country’s nuclear power plants. EDF is substantially owned by the French government, with around 85% of EDF shares in government hands. 78.9% of Areva shares are owned by the French public sector company CEA and are therefore in public ownership. EDF remains heavily in debt. Its profitability suffered during the recession which began in 2008. It made €3.9 billion in 2009, which fell to €1.02 billion in 2010, with provisions set aside amounting to €2.9 billion. The Nuclear industry has been accused of significant cost overruns and failing to cover the total costs of operation, including waste management and decommissioning.

In 2001, nuclear construction and services company Areva was created by the merger of CEA Industrie, Framatome and Cogema (now Areva NC). Its main shareholder is the French owned company CEA, but the German federal government also holds, through Siemens, 34% of the shares of Areva’s subsidiary, Areva NP, in charge of building the EPR (third-generation nuclear reactor).

As of 2015, France’s electricity price, excluding taxation, to household customers is the 12th cheapest amongst the 28 member European Union and the second-cheapest to industrial consumers.

EDF said its third-generation nuclear reactor EPR project at its Flamanville, northern France, plant will be delayed until 2016, due to “both structural and economic reasons,” which will bring the project’s total cost to EUR8.5 billion. Similarly, the cost of the EPR to be built at Olkiluoto, Finland has escalated. Areva and the utility involved “are in bitter dispute over who will bear the cost overruns and there is a real risk now that the utility will default. EDF has suggested that if the political environment causes the EPR costs to overrun, the design would be replaced with a cheaper and simpler Franco-Japanese design, the Atmea for which the design will be completed by 2013, or the already operating Franco-Chinese design, the CPR-1000.

In July 2015, EDF agreed to take a majority stake in Areva NP, following a French government instruction they create a “global strategic partnership”.

In 2016, the European Commission assessed that France’s nuclear decommissioning liabilities were seriously underfunded, with only 23 billion euros of earmarked assets to cover 74.1 billion euros of expected decommissioning costs.

Technical overview

Drawing such a large percentage of overall electrical production from nuclear power is unique to France. This reliance has resulted in certain necessary deviations from the standard design and function of other nuclear power programs. For instance, in order to meet changing demand throughout the day, some plants must work as peaking power plant, whereas most nuclear plants in the world operate as base-load plants, and allow other fossil or hydro units to adjust to demand. Nuclear power in France has a total capacity factor of around 77%, which is low due to load following. However availability is around 84%, indicating excellent overall performance of the plants.

The first eight power reactors in the nation were gas cooled reactor types (UNGG reactor), whose development was pioneered by CEA. Coinciding with a uranium enrichment program, EDF developed pressurized water reactor (PWR) technology which eventually became the dominant type. The gas-cooled reactors located at Brennilis, Bugey, Chinon, and Marcoule have all been shut down.

All operating plants today are PWRs. The sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor technology development reactors, Phénix and Superphénix, have been shut down with work ongoing for a more advanced replacement in the form of the ASTRID (reactor).

The PWR plants were all developed by Framatome (now Areva) from the initial Westinghouse design. All currently operating PWR plants are of three design variations, having output powers of 900 MWe, 1300 MWe, and 1450 MWe. The repeated use of these standard variants of a design has afforded France the greatest degree of nuclear plant standardization in the world.

900 MWe class (CP0, CP1 and CP2 designs)

There are a total of 34 of these reactors in operation; most were constructed in the 1970s and the early 1980s. In 2002, they had a uniform review and all were granted a 10-year life extension.

With the CP0 and CP1 designs, two reactors share the same machine and command room. With the CP2 design, each reactor has its own machine and command room. Apart from this difference, CP1 and CP2 use the same technologies, and the two types are frequently referred to as CPY. Compared to CP0 they have an additional cooling circuit between the emergency system that in case of an accident allows to spray water into the containment and the circuit which contains river water, a more flexible control system and some minor difference in the layout of the building.

This three loop design (three steam generators and three primary circulation pumps) was also exported to a number of other countries, including:

  • South Africa – two units at the Koeberg nuclear power station
  • South Korea – two units at the Ulchin Nuclear Power Plant
  • People’s Republic of China, where it was later developed into the 1000 MWe CPR-1000 design:
    • Two units at the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant
    • Two units at the Ling Ao Nuclear Power Plant

1300 MWe class (P4 and P’4 designs)

There are 20 reactors of this design (four steam generators and four primary circulation pumps) operating in France. The P4 and P’4 type have some minor difference in the layout of the building, especially for the structure which contain the fuel rods and the circuitry.

1450 MWe class (N4 design)

There are only 4 of these reactors, housed at two separate sites: Civaux and Chooz. Construction of these reactors started between 1984 and 1991, but full commercial operation did not begin until between 2000 and 2002 because of thermal fatigue flaws in the heat removal system requiring the redesign and replacement of parts in each N4 power station. In 2003 the stations were all uprated to 1500 MWe.

1650 MWe class (EPR design)

The next generation design for French reactors is the EPR, which will have a broader scope than France alone, with a plant in Finland and two in China undergoing construction, and two more proposed for the United Kingdom. The first French EPR is under construction at the Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant. As a result of delays and cost overruns, completion is now scheduled for 2017. An additional EPR reactor was planned for the Penly Nuclear Power Plant, but this project has now been abandoned.

The reactor design was developed by Areva contributing its N4 reactor technology and the German company Siemens contributing its Konvoi reactor technology. In keeping with the French approach of highly standardized plants and proven technology, it uses more traditional active safety systems and is more similar to current plant designs than international competitors such as the AP1000 or the ESBWR.

In 2013, EDF acknowledged the difficulties it was having building the EPR design. In September 2015 EDF’s chief executive, Jean-Bernard Lévy, stated that the design of a “New Model” EPR was being worked on, which will be easier and cheaper to build, which would be ready for orders from about 2020. In 2016 EDF planned to build two New Model EPR reactors in France by 2030 to prepare for renewing its fleet of older reactors. However following financial difficulties at Areva, and its merger with EDF, French Energy Minister Nicolas Hulot said in January 2018 “for now [building a New Model EPR] is neither a priority or a plan. Right now the priority is to develop renewable energy and to reduce the share of nuclear.”


The majority of nuclear plants in France are located away from the coasts and obtain their cooling water from rivers. These plants employ cooling towers to reduce their impact on the environment. The temperature of emitted water carrying the waste heat is strictly limited by the French government, and this has proved to be problematic during recent heat waves.

Five plants, equaling 18 reactors are located on the coast:

  • Gravelines Nuclear Power Station
  • Penly Nuclear Power Plant
  • Paluel Nuclear Power Plant
  • Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant
  • Blayais Nuclear Power Plant

These five get their cooling water directly from the ocean and can thus dump their waste heat directly back into the sea, which is slightly more economical.

Fuel cycle

France is one of the few countries in the world with an active nuclear reprocessing program, with the COGEMA La Hague site. Enrichment work, some MOX fuel fabrication, and other activities take place at the Tricastin Nuclear Power Centre. Enrichment is completely domestic and is powered by 2/3 of the output of the nuclear plant at Tricastin. Reprocessing of fuel from other countries has been done for the United States and Japan, who have expressed the desire to develop a more closed fuel cycle similar to what France has achieved. MOX fuel fabrication services have also been sold to other countries, notably to the USA for the Megatons to Megawatts Program, using plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons.

While France does not mine uranium for the front end of the fuel cycle domestically, French companies have various holdings in the uranium market. Uranium for the French program totals 10,500 tonnes per year coming from various locations such as:

  • Canada – 4500 tU/yr
  • Niger – 3200 tU/yr

Final disposal of the high level nuclear waste is planned to be done at the Meuse/Haute Marne Underground Research Laboratory deep geological repository.

Operational considerations

France’s nuclear reactors comprise 90 per cent of EDFs capacity and so they are used in load-following mode and some reactors close at weekends because there is no market for the electricity. This means that the capacity factor is low by world standards, usually in the high seventies as a percentage, which is not an ideal economic situation for nuclear plants.

During periods of high demand EDF has been routinely “forced into the relatively expensive spot and short-term power markets because it lacks adequate peak load generating capacity”. France heavily relies on electric heating, with about one third of existing and three-quarters of new houses using electric space heating due to the low off-peak tariffs offered. Due to this residential heating demand, about 2.3 GW of extra power is needed for every degree Celsius of temperature drop. This means that during cold snaps, French electricity demand increases dramatically, forcing the country to import at full capacity from its neighbors during peak demand. For example, in February 2012, Germany “came to the rescue of France during last week’s cold snap by massively exporting electricity to its neighbor”.

All but five of EDFs plants are inland and require fresh water for cooling. Eleven of these 15 inland plants have cooling towers, using evaporative cooling, while the others use lake or river water directly. In very hot summers, generation output may be restricted.

In 2008, nuclear power accounted for 16% of final energy consumption in France. As is common in all industrialized nations, fossil fuels still dominate energy consumption, particularly in the transportation and heating sectors. However, nuclear constitutes a higher level of total energy consumption in France than in any other country. In 2001, nuclear power accounted for 37% of the total energy consumption in France. In 2011 France consumed ~ 11 quadrillion BTUs (3224 TWh) of energy according to the Energy Information Administration.