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France – 100% renewable by 2050?

By Dave Elliott

France is heavily reliant on nuclear power, which supplies around 74% of its electricity, although some of that is in fact used to run the nuclear fuel system, including fuel fabrication and reprocessing. It has often been said that it would be impossible to phase out nuclear in France. The Hollande government has promised to cut the proportion back to 50%, and has a quite ambitious programmes for renewable energy (32% of all energy by 2030) and energy saving (a 50% cut in all energy use by 2050). But going further has often seemed a fantasy, not least in terms of cost. However that’s now changed, with a new government  report suggesting that it would be possible to move to 100% renewables.

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Nuclear Problems

The European Pressurised-water Reactor (EPR) being built at Olkiluoto in Finland is now unlikely to be completed until 2014- five years late- and $3bn or more over-budget. Similar problems face the EPR being built at Flammanville in France. And similar problems have emerged at the two 1.7GW EPRs being built at Taishan in China, 140km west of Hong Kong: variable concrete quality, unqualified or inexperienced subcontractors, poor documentation, language issues. Unit 1 is meant to be ready in 2013, Unit 2 in 2014, followed by two more. China has also had some problems with rapidly deploying its re-engineered version of the Westinghouse AP1000, but there are reports that it may be interested in a revised version of the EPR. Indeed some reports say that EDF may ditch the current EPR design for future EU plants and go for a cheaper, smaller, simpler franco-chinese design. All this has not helped the industries finances: French nuclear company Areva has operating losses of between €1.4bn and €1.6bn, the first loss for the 10-year-old group.

Matters were not improved by the report in January from the French nuclear power watchdog ASN, which, in its post-Fukushima review, said that EDF must install flood- proof diesel generators and bunkered remote back-up control rooms at its 19 plants across the country, at a cost of perhaps €10 bn,. Overall EDF estimated the cost of extending the lifespan of its nuclear plants from 40 to 60 years at €40-50 bn over the next 30 years. ANS didn’t call for any plant closures and EDF was bullish, claiming that it invested ‘more than €11 bn a year across the world.’ However it has decided to diversify its nuclear-dominated portfolio by building strong businesses in gas and coal, as well as hydropower and renewables. But its shares fell a further 4.06% after the ANS review.

However nuclear faces more than just technical and economic problems, but also significant political shifts. In addition to the German, Swiss and Italian decisions to abandon nuclear, in France the Socialist candidate in the presidential election wants to cut nuclear by 50% by 2025 -the party has secured agreement with the greens to campaign for the closure of 24 nuclear reactors by 2025 in the election, though the Greens would prefer a 100% shut down. And in Belgium political parties seeking to form a government (it did not have one for over a year!) conditionally agreed to revert to the original 2003 plan to shut Belgiums three oldest plants in 2015 and the remaining two by 2025. Meanwhile a new tax has been imposed on nuclear operators. They currently supply 55% of Belgium’s power.

In Japan, only five plants are still operating, out of the original 54, and three of them are scheduled to shut for annual maintenance and safety checks in April. With local opposition very strong and growing, it may be hard to restart them, or any of the others- they need the local municipalities to agree to that. So Japan may end up becoming nuclear free by default. Certainly long term nuclear looks like to be very constrained. In January, Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, said that Japan’s dependence on nuclear power must be reduced to the ‘maximum extent.’

The UK keeps going

There are no visions (yet) anything like that in the UK: indeed, in what some might see as a reversal of its policy on nuclear subsidies, the government has offered Sheffield Forgemasters a loan of up to £36 million “to continue its drive into civil nuclear and steelworks plant production.” A similar offer had, you may recall, been withdrawn earlier.

Horizon Nuclear Power- a 50/50 RWE nPower/ EOn UK joint venture – plans to submit a planning application for a new plant at Oldbury around 2014. They say ‘given the right market conditions, and subject to a final investment decision, preliminary works could begin in 2016, followed by main construction from 2019.’ They have also bought land for a proposed new plant at Wyfla, with a planning submission scheduled soon, and operation by perhaps 2020. But they have yet to decide whether to go for Areva’s EPR or Westinghouse’s AP1000 for these sites. However, EDF and Areva have been pushing ahead with their plans to build EPRs at Hinkley and Sizewell: they submitted a site licence application for Hinkley Point C last July. And despite SSE pulling out of the consortium, NuGen is still planning a plant alongside Sellafield, with a possible 2023 start up date.

Will the nuclear plants really happen? EDF Energy is the most advanced so far. It said that before it finally committed to a go ahead it was imperative that ‘transitional arrangements for the Contract for Difference are in place, arrangements for the funded decommissioning plan are set, and, we have a high level of confidence in the cost and timetable for construction.’

Although they have not given hard dates for the Sizewell and Hinkley projects, they originally said they wanted them to begin operating by the end of 2017 and in 2019 respectively. Fukushima and the need to extend the Generic Design Assessment process may have altered that but, though they have talked of an ‘adjusted timetable’, EDF have stressed that ‘an adjusted timetable has never meant a suspended timetable, the project continues. It is on track.’

Longer term

With uranium fired reactors out of favour after Fukushima, for the longer term, some in the nuclear lobby have been promoting thorium as an allegedly safer fuel- looking at molten flouride salt systems.

The Weinberg Foundation was launched last year to promote the Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) which was portrayed as one of ‘the world’s safest reactor designs which cannot burn or melt down, breeds its own fuel, consumes most of its highly radioactive products, and will not release any radioactive materials into the environment’.

Canada, China and India all have projects underway but the technology is still some way off as viable commercial option. Certainly it’s not without its problems. Thorium is not fissile, so to make a reactor work you have to mix it with U235 or plutonium or provide some other source of neutrons (e.g. a particle accelerator) to convert it to U233, which is fissile. What you then get, as well as heat energy, radiation, and fission products from the Plutonium and Uranium, is U232. U232 (and its decay products) emit very hard gamma radiation. That’s seen as ensuring that no one would try to steal fuel from thorium reactors to make bombs – since it would be so hard to work with or shield from detection. But it also makes it hard to design safe reactors or deal with their wastes- you need very much thicker shielding for the reactor core or for waste transport containers. We are probably talking a meter of lead or so!

Some thorium enthusiasts say that nearly all the wastes can be burnt up within the reactor, but there will still be some to deal with- and there’s always the chance of fuel/waste escapes/ leaks. And you really wouldn’t want to be around then.

So will it happen? Should it? The LFTR may be better than the current range of uranium designs, but it will be a while before we know for certain- there’s a host of unknowns and risks. Friends of the Earth seems content to leave it as a possible long term option, and certainly it’s an argument against rushing into a new wave of current types of reactors. But will anyone really trust the nuclear lobby when it says ‘we have the answer’, as so often before? Technologies like this also seem to attract single-minded lobbyists and believers in ‘silver bullet’ fixes, which can distract from the development of a wider range of arguably more realistic renewable options.

For a different view see: www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/other_comments/962512/response_dont_dismiss_the_potential_of_thorium_ nuclear_power.html

In my next Blog I’ll look at the prospects for nuclear in the developing world- some see that as its best hope.

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