France : the Governement “White Paper on energies” dissociates energy options from the future of the French nuclear industry

In a White Paper published on 7 November 2003, the French Government broadens options for the French energy future. It gives up the dogma of the continuation of the nuclear power, even considering a “phase-out scenario”, and delays any decision on the construction of a new reactor, EPR (European Pressurized Reactor. It thus clearly dissociates the stakes between energy strategy - for which there is no need of an EPR- and the support to a project pushed by the constructor, Framatome, for several years as “essential for the survival” of the French nuclear industry.

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WISE-Paris, 9 November 2003

[Posted 06/12/2003]

By officially giving up the dogma of the nuclear power continuation in France, the Government White Paper on energies, presented on November 7, 2003 by the Minister of industry, Mrs Nicole Fontaine, (1) marks a milestone in the debate on the national energy policy.

Replacement “or not” of the nuclear fleet

The Government indeed opens all the options on the central issue in the debate, of the replacement “or not” of the current reactors at the end of their lifetime, by a new nuclear capacity. The White Paper confirms the traditional priorities of the French energy policy - competitiveness, environmental protection, security of supply -, but breaks with the traditional doctrinal link between these objectives and the long-term continuation of the nuclear option. This makes it possible to consider “a phase-out scenario”, where nuclear power plants are not replaced by new ones. The priorities are elsewhere, as stated it the preamble to the preliminary draft of law integrated into the White Paper: “the energy policy intends to give the priority to the control of energy demand, and to the diversification of energy supply, in particular through the development of renewable energies.”

Since the end of a “national debate on energy”, in May 2003, which had not concluded on this issue, Mrs Nicole Fontaine unceasingly recalled her support for the only “option” she considers, the urgent order of an EPR to prepare the renewal of the national nuclear capacity. She declared on several occasions that this question should be solved “at the beginning of the next year at the latest”, (2) and that she would propose to the Prime Minister “to choose” the EPR to renew the French nuclear capacity. (3)

Alternatives to the EPR “option”

While presenting the White Paper to the press, Nicole Fontaine repeated that “the government plans the construction of a prototype third generation reactor (EPR) nuclear” in order to “keep the nuclear option open”. (4) According to her, the Government considers “the construction of a demonstrator (...) essential.”

On the contrary, the White Paper confirms, in accordance with the call to order of the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, on 9 October 2003, that “no decision is taken” (5) on this issue. The White Paper demonstrates firstly that there is no urgency regarding energy demand, while “the question of the evolution of the energy mix is only arising at the horizon 2020.”

In addition to a phase-out scenario (i.e. not replacing the existing nuclear capacity by new nuclear reactors), the Government also opens the door to options, in the sight of a nuclear replacement, other that an EPR prototype. In case of continuation of the nuclear choice beyond operation of the current fleet, three alternative scenarios to that presented by Nicole Fontaine are thus clearly considered:

- a strategy that delays the replacement “up to 2035-2055” to benefit from “reactors of a completely new design” (so-called “Generation IV”),
- “the direct construction of an industrial series, on the basis of the EPR technology, starting in 2015”, without anticipating it by a demonstrator,
- and “the recourse to a foreign technology, much probably American, if industrial capacities could not be kept within AREVA and EDF.”

Contrary to the advertisement by the Minister of Industry, the “Proposals of the Government on energies”, gathered in a chapter of the White Paper, thus postpones any decision on the launching of an EPR project. It only “considers” the option that “the next multiannual plan of investments, whose horizon will be 2015 (...), envisages the short term construction of a new generation demonstrator.” The multiannual planning of investments for the production of electricity, or PPI (“Programmation pluriannuelle des investissements”), was introduced by a law on the electricity sector of February 2000. (6) It provides that the Government lays down generating capacities objectives and reports to the Parliament.

The first PPI, prepared in 2001 (7) based on a forecast by 2010, and published in a decree of 7 March 2003, established the needs for “additional power to be commissioned, by primary energy, between the 1st January 2003 and the 1st January 2007”, not including any new capacity in nuclear power. (8) At the time, the Government delayed the decision on the EPR by specifying in its order that “the orientations regarding nuclear power have vocation to be fixed by the law of orientation on the energy provided for by the law n°2000-108 of 10 February 2000”; eight months later, it uses an opposite reasoning in the White Paper to further postpone the decision.

By opening the options this way, the White Paper clearly dissociates for the first time the question of an “EPR demonstrator” from the real stakes of French energy policy. Indeed, this makes the EPR project appear for what it is: not an instrument of any energy strategy, but an attempt of the nuclear industry to survive the major crisis to which it is confronted.

Preserving competence

Preserving competencies has been the actual perspective of defense of the EPR project by its proponents for several years. Framatome, one of the two reactor’s engineering company, today integrated into AREVA Group, sounded already alarm in 1999, in its contribution to the “Charpin-Dessus-Pellat” mission on economic evaluation of the nuclear power for then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin:

Without preserving current competences, it is the nuclear industry which is in danger. (...) This maintenance of competences, of know-how, cannot result only from the work arising from operating reactors, even if the international level is included. Only a project realization will make it possible to keep and attract the necessary talents to preserve the competence. Should there be no such project, then it would for sure result in an erosion and a lack of motivation. The launching of the head of series of the EPR can represent this federator project which will ensure this part essential to the survival of the industry.” (9)

The heart of the problem is that a decision on the EPR, vital support measure for AREVA, would raise a certain number of difficulties and important contradictions for the French energy policy in the light of the objectives laid down by the Government itself or resulting from European constraints. Conceived in a very different context, in the Eighties, the EPR project appears, in a global perspective, like a choice from the past which closes the future. (10)

Targeting Finland

In the absence of a quick decision in this direction in France, given the urgency for the nuclear industry, the campaign for the EPR is perhaps aiming at another goal: to support the order of an EPR by Finland. The Finnish operator TVO indeed announced in October 2003 that the EPR had been pre-selected among four proposals, and that it had started closer negotiations with AREVA. But what the French company -which has no other export prospect for its EPR- proposes to Finland is not a demonstrator, but a “turn-key” project, a rapidly built and smoothly operated reactor. It is not obvious that Finland is really ready to offer to the French nuclear industry the sheet anchor which France refuses so far to invest in.


All quotations from documents in French are translated by WISE-Paris

  1. Livre Blanc sur les énergies, Minister of Industry, November 7, 2003
    Nicole Fontaine speech:
  2. “France : le gouvernement veut plus d’informations sur le réacteur nucléaire EPR”, AFP, Paris, September 12, 2003
  3. “Nicole Fontaine va proposer au Premier ministre de choisir le réacteur EPR”, AFP, Paris, October 8, 2003
  4. “La construction d’un réacteur de 3ème génération envisagée”, AFP, Paris, November 7, 2003
  5. Press release, Prime Minister, “Remise du Rapport Besson”, October 9, 2003
  6. Law n° 2000-108 of February 10, 2000 on electricity (“relative à la modernisation et au développement du service public de l’électricité”), Journal Officiel, February 11, 2000
  7. Ministry for the economy, finances and industry, Programmation pluriannuelle des investissements de production électrique, Report to the Parliament, January 2002
  8. Decree of 7 March 2003 on the multiannual programming of the investments in electricity generation capacity (“relatif à la programmation pluriannuelle des investissements de production d’électricité”), Journal Officiel, March 18, 2003
  9. Framatome, “Réponses aux questions de M.René Pellat, Haut Commissaire à l'Energie Atomique”, document prepared for the Mission Charpin-Dessus-Pellat, Paris, December 22, 1999
  10. See Marignac, Yves, L’EPR : un choix du passé qui fermerait l’avenir ?, WISE-Paris, November 2003