Issue: January 2023, Goodbye, nuclear power – Unsustainable, uneconomical and high-risk
“The land of nuclear lunacy”
Interview with Yves Marignac (Association négaWatt)
France relies on nuclear energy for around 67% of its electricity — more than any other European country. However, nuclear energy use in France is by no means trouble-free: in summer of 2022, nuclear power plants discharged hot water from their cooling systems into already overheated rivers, and in September, 32 reactors were offline for maintenance and other reasons, putting energy supply security at risk. Yves Marignac is an expert on the French energy market and Head of Department at Association négaWatt. In this interview with eco@work, he explains why France remains committed to nuclear energy despite all the problems, and discusses the prospects of a change of course in French nuclear policy.
Monsieur Marignac, why does nuclear power play such a major role in France?
In my view, there are three main reasons for this. Firstly, it stems from our country’s history. In the 1970s, nuclear power – in France, at least – was associated with the narrative of cheap energy for everyone. This was to be guaranteed by a monopoly for Électricité de France, now known as EDF. The strong reactor fleet somehow became part of French identity. Secondly, the government and the nuclear industry have always relied on a kind of perennial growth, leading to a string of poor strategic decisions. As they are not ready to acknowledge failures and face the industrial and financial consequences, they constantly create new perspectives to pretend that everything is just fine. And thirdly, in France, the civilian and military uses of nuclear energy are closely linked. President Emmanuel Macron conceded in 2020 that one cannot function without the other.
Pretending that everything is fine – how does that work in the current crisis?
Many stakeholders are refusing to face up to reality because they are essentially part of the problem. In France, there is a strong link between the government and the nuclear lobby. And this lobby is still able to strongly influence public debate. But of course, there are also discussions and reactions to the present situation. This is evident, for example, from the shift in attitude towards sufficiency – in other words, limiting energy consumption. For instance, only a year ago, Macron compared this to the lifestyle of the Amish, who reject modern technologies. A year on, the government is publishing a sufficiency plan.
How is the French nuclear industry reacting to the current situation?
I often say that there are two things the nuclear industry does best: make promises – and break them. An example is the European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR) in Flamanville. This was meant to be ready 10 years ago, and the costs are soaring. And yet an opinion often voiced in the nuclear industry is that there needs to be even more reliance on nuclear power in order to end the crisis. In early 2022, Macron announced plans to build at least six more EPRs, the first of which could not be on line before 15 years. We are the land of nuclear lunacy.
What can be done to give a boost to renewables in France? At present, their share is only around 25%.
I have faith in the economic power of renewable energies themselves. I believe they are attractive to investors. They will accelerate development and thus increase the pressure on nuclear policies.
Unfortunately, France has created a great many regulatory barriers to renewable energies. No wonder we were the only European country to miss the renewable energy expansion targets for 2020.
What are your thoughts on the search for a repository site in France?
In my view, the government and the nuclear industry are not giving themselves enough time; they are not proceeding with sufficient care. They want to build a repository as quickly as possible so that the nuclear programme can continue. The EU Taxonomy also requires a repository plan to be in place. This creates a great deal of pressure, especially at the local level.
However, my biggest worry at the moment is interim storage of waste and piling up “reusable” nuclear materials. The main storage facilities are not robust enough and some will soon be at maximum capacity – and that could create pressure to lower safety standards. That is what we should be focusing on at present.
Thank you for talking to eco@work.
The interviewer was Christiane Weihe.
Talking to eco@work: Yves Marignac, Head of Department, Nuclear and Fossil Fuels at Association négaWatt.
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Energy and nuclear expert Yves Marignac started with studying “Information of the Public about the Decommissioning of Nuclear Facilities” at Paris-Sud University. From 1997 to 2020, he worked at WISE-Paris, a non-profit consultancy on nuclear and energy issues, latterly as its Director. In 2017, Yves Marignac joined Association négaWatt, an independent think tank dedicated to finding sustainable solutions to energy demand and supply issues. négaWatt has developed a carbon neutral scenario showing how France’s energy supply can switch to 100% renewables by 2050. He has headed négawatt’s Nuclear and Fossil Fuels Department since 2020.
Yves Marignac also lectures at the prestigious Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po), focusing on topics such as energy and sustainable development. He is a member of the International Nuclear Risk Assessment Group (INRAG), the International Network for Sufficiency Research and Policy (ENOUGH), the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), and of some Permanent Groups of Experts advising the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) and various other bodies. He was honoured with the Nuclear Free Future Award in 2012.
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