Boosted by decarbonization, France returns to nuclear power policy

This could be a sign of the growing recognition that nuclear power generation is useful in advancing measures to tackle global warming while maintaining a stable supply of electricity.

French President Emmanuel Macron has announced a policy to resume the construction of new nuclear power reactors as a key step toward achieving decarbonization. It reportedly includes a plan to build a number of new nuclear power reactors called “European Pressurized Water Reactors.”

France depends on nuclear power generation for 70% of its electric power generation, but no new facility has been constructed since 2007. Although the country has been criticized for its heavy dependence on nuclear power following the accident at Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc.’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, this latest move clearly showed its stance of continuing to focus on nuclear power generation in the future.

This is partly because the use of nuclear power is being viewed more positively among people in France due to concerns over extreme weather caused by global warming and dissatisfaction with rising gas and electricity rates.

Nuclear power is a stable source of electricity that can complement the weaknesses of weather-sensitive renewable energy sources, and it does not emit carbon dioxide.

Macron, who is seeking reelection in next year’s presidential election, is probably trying to expand his support by formulating realistic environmental and energy policies.

France’s policy is bound to affect the European Union. The EU will soon compile a list of sustainable economic activities. It is aimed at encouraging investment in industries that are conducive to decarbonization, making it easier for designated industries to receive public subsidies.

France and Poland have called for nuclear power generation to be included in the list. If so designated, it will be a symbolic decision that sets out the EU’s stance to attach importance to the role of nuclear power while leading the global trend toward decarbonization.

What should be noted is a plan by Germany, which has mapped out a policy of shutting down all nuclear power plants by the end of 2022. Coalition negotiations following September’s federal election have made it more likely that the Greens, an anti-nuclear environmental party, will join the new government.

The vulnerability of renewable energy has only recently been exposed in Europe, where the wind-generated power supply has decreased due to weak winds this summer, sending electricity costs through the roof.

Germany’s plan to build pipelines and increase the supply of Russian natural gas has drawn strong criticism from an energy security perspective.

Germany’s new administration will be asked how it can achieve both decarbonization and a stable supply of electricity while maintaining its policy of phasing out nuclear power plants.

The situation is even worse in Japan, which does not have a cross-border power grid like the one in Europe. The Japanese government should proactively consider not only restarting suspended nuclear power reactors but also building new ones and expanding facilities, referring to France’s moves.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Nov. 22, 2021.