The Best Way Forward? It Might Mean Looking Back.

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It has been two decades since I struggled through mid -level French courses, leaving me to wonder if the meager French I retained would ever come in handy. However, after reading about the dilemma that the French government is facing in replacing and/or maintaining its fleet of nuclear reactors, I couldn’t help pass along the pithy French slogan coined by the youthful French President Emmanuel Macron in describing France’s continued dependence on nuclear power. “Reculer pour mieux sauter,” Macron said, or “take a step back to better leap forward.”

In context, France might like to move away from nuclear power, but that’s not happening anytime soon. 

To understand why France’s electric generation portfolio is so dependent on nuclear power, it helps to have a little historical context from the early 1970’s. After the economic shock of the OPEC oil embargo of the late 1970’s, France embarked on an aggressive expansion of its nuclear footprint to ensure the nation’s energy independence. French Prime Minister Pierre Messmer announced on August 6, 1974, that France would build 13 new nuclear power plants. Since that decision almost 45 years ago, nuclear power has been the foundation of electricity generation in France.  

In 2015, the French Government codified its energy future into law by reducing its dependence on nuclear power, calling for nuclear to account for just 50% of its electricity needs by 2025.   According to the plan, renewables would fill the void and eventually account for 40% of production by 2030. To Macron’s credit, he has recognized nuclear power for what it is – a carbon-free power source that offers affordable, reliable, baseload electricity. In an effort to avoid destabilizing electrical reliability in France, the French president said that nuclear reactors would only be pulled offline if the “security of supply is ensured.”  This statement could also be characterized as a nod to maintaining affordability, as France’s electricity prices are almost 43% cheaper than its neighbor to the east, Germany.   

Those who have followed our blogging for the past decade will know that we write often about nuclear power, because of its role as a cornerstone of maintaining affordable and reliable electricity while pursuing emissions goals. Since 2009, we’ve focused on everything from the development of America’s first nuclear reactor in a generation at Plant Vogtle to the misguided efforts in some states to impose a carbon “fee” on consumers to the most recent efforts to deregulate the electricity sector in Nevada and its negative impact on residential consumers.  

We’ve also made an effort to write routinely about international approaches to meeting electricity demand, focusing particularly on what some countries have faced when they have gone “all in” on renewables without an eye for price and reliability for customers. We’re looking at you, Germany. In France’s case, we must give credit where credit is due. President Emmanuel Macron deserves applause for acknowledging that prematurely pulling carbon-free nuclear power generation offline to meet arbitrary renewable power targets poses a danger to customers. Not only could it raise power prices, it could destabilize the nation’s power grid. The answer to France’s energy future might require revisiting its past. In other words, “reculer pour mieux sauter!” If you want to move France forward, take a step back and understand the critical role played by nuclear power.