Alasdair speaks to Thomas Pellerin Carlin, Director of the EU Programme at the Institute for Climate Economics, about France's relationship with nuclear energy, growing support for legislation focused on sufficiency, and how party politics shapes these issues.
Audio editing by Vasko Kostovski.
Hello and welcome to the Land and Climate Podcast. My name's Alasdair MacEwen and in this episode we focus on the development of nuclear energy in France, as well as talking a little bit about the now popular idea of sufficiency in climate policymaking. I spoke to social scientist Thomas Pellerin Carlin, Director of the European programme at the French climate think tank the Institute of Climate Economics otherwise known as I4CE.Thomas:
We have a big historic nuclear fleet, but it's not 100% reliable because we know that nuclear engineers will find new problems in that fleet. We just don't know when and how big they will be.Alasdair:
Thomas is an expert in French and European energy policy, and so I began by asking him if and why nuclear energy had recently had a resurgence in France and to explain some of the politics behind the use of nuclear energy.Thomas:
I think if one really wants to understand the French debate around nuclear energy, we should start at the end of World War II. World War II was a traumatic experience for France. The entire army collapsed in six weeks. A lot of the state apparatus collaborated with the Nazis, and at the end of World War II, there was this idea of like, 'never again'. Like, we should find a way to make sure that never again France would be invaded. And as France was losing its colonial empire from the '50s onwards, the idea was actually 'one thing we really need to have is to have a nuclear bomb, because if we have a nuclear bomb, then nobody's going to bother us anymore'. And that started a narrative around nuclear as being a major source of independence and of sovereignty for France. And so obviously that made a lot of sense from a nuclear bomb perspective in the context of the Cold War. And then we had 1973, the first oil shock that really traumatised economies in the West. And in that context, France looked at nuclear power plants and it had a few for military purposes originally and said, actually, we can use that also to generate electricity. So why not use nuclear not only as a weapon to protect sovereignty, but also as a civilian tool to produce electricity and therefore also ensure sovereignty? You have still today kind of a copy paste of that national sovereignty, national security, independence narrative that was originally created for the military side of the nuclear debate, that is now in the civilian side of the nuclear debate. And that makes France quite specific in the EU, because it's the only EU member state that has a nuclear weapon. The level of, let's say, the emotional attachment of especially part of the French elite to nuclear is really linked to something that has been built first and foremost thinking about the military. And so in the '70s and the '80s France launched a massive civilian nuclear energy programme and France is absolutely a normal state in that context, like that's also happening in the west of Germany, also in Italy, in Austria, even in Belgium, and in the UK. The big change is actually happening outside of France, where some of those countries stop nuclear, and in the case of Austria, even choose not to use a nuclear power plant that they already had paid for and built. But France continued on a path of building nuclear power plants. In the '80s and in the '90s we reached a point where nuclear produces around 75% of the French electricity, playing a big role for the electricity sector, but nonetheless, playing a minor role for the energy sector because what a lot of people forget, including President Macron, who recently also made the confusion about it;. electricity is just one piece of the energy puzzle. In France, just like in any developed economy, electricity is about, let's say, 25% of the energy system. And so even if nuclear is super important for France from this electricity standpoint, if you look at the energy mix, nuclear is like 15, 20% of France's energy, which is less than France's dependence on fossil gas and two times smaller than France's dependence on oil. So we ended up that situation in the '90s. We've got a lot of nuclear power plants, everything seems to work well, they're quite cheap, et cetera. And then there's a question like, what actually, should we continue to build more nuclear reactors? And in the '90s the idea is like, yeah, maybe later. And EDF, which is a French state owned electricity company that has a lot of its history that is really rooted in this nuclear development of the 1970s, EDF comes up with this new project called the EPR and say, 'okay, we're going to build a new nuclear reactor. It's going to be much better, much more secure, much more modern, and much more powerful'. Most of the nuclear reactors France has are 500 megawatts, 800 megawatts, here we're talking about a new reactor of 1600 MW. So something quite big, and EDF goes forward with that plan in 2002, 2004, at that moment, and they start building that new nuclear actor actually close to where I'm from in Normandy, in a place called Flamanville. And at the time, they restart construction in 2007, and at the time they think that the plant is going to be operational in 2012 and it's going to cost €3.5 billion. And the assumption is that, 'yeah, this plan is going to work and then we're just going to go forward and build a few more'. But economically and technically, that project in Flamanville encounters a lot of obstacles and it becomes an industrial failure because it was supposed to cost €3.5 billion. Now the latest figure is in the ballpark of €18 billion. And that plant was supposed to be operational when I graduated from university. And we're still in 2023. I've graduated eleven years ago. And that plant is still under construction. Obviously at the time, like a lot of politicians say, 'let's wait and see'. In 2012 we have the election of François Hollande, who is a socialist president. And in his political platform he came up with the idea that France should reduce its reliance on nuclear to go from 75% of electricity coming from nuclear to 50%. And the question is, why is he willing to do that? And actually it's just about party politics because Hollande had a feud with another politician called Martine Aubry and they were competing inside their party for a primary election, a little bit like the primary system in the US. That's what the French Socialists had at the time in 2011, 2012. And Aubry was more to the left. She was leaning closely to the green vote and she was a bit stronger on phasing out nuclear, but without any kind of super detailed plan. And Hollande didn't want to lose too many green votes. So he came up with an idea that seemed rational. Yeah, just half of the French electricity coming from nuclear, but he didn't really think about it that hard. So it was kind of something that was made up on the go, which is something that some French politicians like to do from time to time (and other politicians in other countries also). And then Hollande gets elected in 2012 and they have that plan of scaling down nuclear generation capacity. And so EDF there is a bit at a loss. They don't have a political signal to go for a nuclear. Their massive plant is an industrial failure. They have no idea how much it's going to cost in the end, how much time that they still need to finalise that plan. In. 2017 Macron comes in, gets the election. Macron tends to be pronuclear, but he was also the economics minister of Hollande. So he says, oh, we got to keep the same objective as Hollande. We're just going to delay its implementation by ten years. And the big shift really happened, I would say, in 2021. Let's be clear, this has nothing to do with the war in Ukraine. This has nothing to do really with a lot of service. This has first and foremost everything to do with Macron politics in France. At first, Macron came with this idea of being a centre left, liberal, maybe centre right politician. That was Macron 2017 and as time progressed, Macron shifted his politics but also his electoral targets. And he shifted that to the right with the idea that now that he had destroyed the centre left, he could also destroy the centre right and therefore make sure that all the electors from both the centre left and the centre right will vote for him. So he switched to the right in a lot of pension reforms and labour legislation, et cetera. But since on nuclear, the right really liked nuclear in France, it was very smart for him also to pivot towards a very pronuclear stance. And so to me, it's really the politics behind that which drove the announcement. And so we went from Macron being passively pronuclear to someone who was very active there and very active in making speeches, in saying that nuclear is not only the past of the French system, it's also the future of the French system that nuclear should be included in all European legislation that have to do with energy, with climate. And he came up in that speech in early 2022, before the elections in a city called Belfort, and he talked about France's future, and his number one topic was nuclear. Like it was not AI or renewables or microchips or vaccines or whatever. It was nuclear first item on the agenda. And he said very clearly, what we're going to do is we're going to pass legislation and find funding to build six nuclear power plants in France, and we may also provide funding for eight more. So that's a total of 14 nuclear reactors in France, which seems like a lot. But France currently have almost 60 nuclear reactors, and those 14 reactors may seem like a lot, but even if very pro nuclear plan works, perfectly, we would still see a decline of the share of nuclear in the French energy system just because we've got a lot of old power plants that will be shut down at some point. Because it's like an old car and an old nuclear power plant is like an old car. You can continue to drive it, but you need to do security checks, safety checks a bit more often. And sometimes you need to pay a little bit here and there to change that component or that component. And at some point it's not worth it. There's no economics in continuing to drive a very old car. You just get rid of it. To me, that's kind of the story of the last 80 years of French nuclear politics.Alasdair:
So what you're actually saying is that there's potentially actually an overall decline of nuclear energy in the French energy system overall, or that will be the case in years to come?Thomas:
Yeah, and that actually already started. So the French nuclear fleet was supposed to produce 450TWh every year, and currently they are only at 300. So they're producing at 60% capacity on average. And the reason for that is there are some safety concerns because they've looked at some nuclear power plants. Some of them are like, not that old at just 20 years, others are older, like 40 years. And we have in France a genuinely independent nuclear safety agency with a lot of genuine experts that do their job. And the job of nuclear safety engineers is to look at those power plants and they do spot problems. And they say, 'EDF, you are the company managing that plant. Fix that problem'. And fixing that problem takes time, takes months, may also take years, sometimes, for the worst ones. And so therefore, we're in that situation where we have a big historic nuclear fleet, but it's not 100% reliable because we know that nuclear safety engineers will find new problems in that fleet, we just don't know when and how big they will be. And if you look at what happened in the EU, what I found surprising, and I love reminding the French and the Germans about that, but the country that reduced nuclear production the most in Europe in the last 15 years is not Germany, it's France. Germany did reduce as a national German policy of phasing out nuclear energy first and do that before phasing out coal and gas. And France just happened to have a decrease in nuclear production that was not chosen. That was really something that the French company EDF had to model through and deal with. And all those debates on new nuclear reactors is very useful, but there's a lot of uncertainty on the cost, on the timing. The government's plan is to have two more new nuclear reactors operational in 2035, which is very ambitious. Maybe it's going to be 2037 or 2040, and that's useful for the long term from now to 2035. What are you going to do? Like, if you want to generate electricity in a way that makes sense from a climate perspective, you can build new nuclear power plants and hopefully they're going to be helpful 12,15 years down the road. But if you want to act now, that's solar panels, wind power, et cetera. And that's kind of the weak link of French energy politics now; a lot of people present nuclear either as the devil, something that will leads us to hell, and the apocalypse. That's a very small minority in France. It's more of a majority in Germany or in Austria. But on the other side of the political spectrum, you have people who just present nuclear as being that kind of silver bullet, that kind of solution, that technology, which on its own will solve everything, while everybody who looks at it from a pragmatic perspective says that nuclear can be one part of the solution, but it is not the solution as a whole. And even in a policy mix, it will always remain a minor piece of the puzzle because the vast majority of the efforts that one needs to do has to do with reducing energy demand, reducing material consumption, having a more efficient energy system, putting much more wind power, solar power, heat pumps, electrolysers online, et cetera. And you can add nuclear to that equation if you want to, but if you add it it's just going to be a small part of the equation.Alasdair:
It's very interesting that the recent cosmetic resurgence of nuclear energy has come about from party politics more than any kind of energy strategy. Is France's energy strategy at the moment sufficient? And is nuclear blocking progress in the kind of short term energy strategy that France has?Thomas:
It depends on who you ask. So if you look at what the government is trying to do, the government has a coherent policy of what we call energy sufficiency. So in French we use the term sobriety, which mean like being sober, not being drunk. And that's one of the pillars actually of the governmental policy, which is to say that currently we're drunk on energy, we're consuming far more energy than we need and therefore we need to cut back that consumption. In practice, it's 'let's make sure that nobody heats one's place at 24 degrees in the winter, like put on a sweater. heat it at 16, 18, 19 degrees, you're going to be fine, you're going to save a lot of energy'. And so the government is very vocal on that. And that's something that is a bit unpopular, let's be clear. So there is a level of courage there. The government is also trying to do stuff on energy efficiency, so renovating buildings, et cetera. They could definitely do more on that front. But still they're going there. And when it comes to renewables, they've been trying to push for the development of renewables in France. They've been supporting faster permitting for wind power plants, for solar panels, et cetera. And they've been also pushing for nuclear. If you talk at the tactical level of the government, nuclear is one piece of the equation. And obviously I could criticise that overall policy mix, but by and large, I mean, it's largely coherent. But at the level of politicians, whether those are governmental politicians or parliamentary politicians, nobody talks about energy sufficiency, nobody talks about energy efficiency. It's kind of everything like nuclear versus wind power and this really cartoon idea that you need to choose your camp, either you're with us or you're against us kind of idea. So either you're with nuclear or you're with the renewables. And so a lot of experts like me and many others are like, 'I don't need to choose between mom and dad. Actually, for me as a kid, the best is if they work together'. Given what French politics and the French energy system and the French energy economics are, it's very hard to do a transition without nuclear. It's impossible to do one without renewables in France. And so the government at the technical level is trying to match those things together. But it's an uphill battle because against them, they have a lot of politicians from all sides who tweet, they go on TV and speak for 10 seconds. They're not in the politics of nuance. That sadly is a level where one needs to get to if you want to deliver a smart public policy that transform an energy system.Alasdair:
Can you say a little bit more about the role of EDF and its kind of relationship with the French government? One of the interesting things you said was around the relationship between civilian nuclear energy and the military side or defense. Should we be looking at the development of nuclear energy with that lens in mind?Thomas:
The civilian nuclear and the military nuclear technologies are different sets of technologies, but they can both rely on a similar, especially educational, ecosystem. You need to train nuclear engineers if you want to have nuclear energy. Nuclear and defence in the military is not only the atomic bomb, it's also nuclear submarines and nuclear aircraft carriers in the context of France. So there is a link there, but to me, the greatest link is really in the narrative, really this idea that whether built for civilian or military purposes, nuclear is a source for French independence. It's one way for France to ensure its national sovereignty. And that's a very powerful message that resonates with a lot of people, especially in the right wing of the political spectrum. But not only there. For instance, we still have a Communist party in France. They're very pronuclear and also with this idea of independence against the US. This is the view that the French communists still have today. EDF is a very peculiar company. EDF was created after World War II and it's literally the company that brought electricity to the French rural areas. My own grandfather, like, if I talk to him about EDF, like he never worked there, but to him, EDF is literally electrification. Like the fact that they would have electricity in France in the 1950s, in post World War II Normandy, which was totally destroyed by the war. And so there is that emotional attachment to EDF which embodies the idea of a strong French state that takes the French nation out of the ashes of World War II and rebuilt it and made it what it is today, which is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And so EDF has that very, very powerful image in the eyes of the French public, in the eyes of French politicians. EDF has always been state owned. At some point, some people wanted to privatise EDF and so they sold a few shares of EDF. I think at the lowest point, like, EDF was only 82% owned by the French states. And now Macron, as part of his more pronuclear stance, decided to renationalise EDF. The relationship between the state and a state owned company can be sometimes the relationship of a werewolf. You never know when it's the human that controls the beast and when it's the beast that controls the human. I'll let you pick who is the beast and who is the human in my metaphor. But it could also work very well in terms of synergies. The situation has been quite tense between EDF and the French state. There have been open attacks, actually, between the CEO of EDF and the French president, Emmanuel Macron. Essentially those two guys accusing one of lying to the another. But definitely there is a strong link between the French state and EDF and it cuts both ways. Sometimes you really see EDF overinfluencing the French government in some areas. Some other times you see the French government happy to gut the profits of EDF just to win some points electorally. And in the economics of that recently, in the past few years, rather than subsidise electricity in France, the government, which controls EDF, imposed on EDF to sell electricity at a very cheap rate and essentially sell electricity as a loss. And so if you look at the economics of EDF, you can't really disentangle that with French politics because one of the key elements that led to EDF making a lot of losses recently was actually governmental decisions imposed on EDF to sell nuclear agency at a very cheap cost. But really the priority for me, as a researcher at least, looking at EDF, is to make sure that EDF does not put all its eggs in the nuclear basket. If EDF only goes for nuclear, maybe it will work. But if it doesn't work, then it's kind of the end of the main electricity provider in France, which, like EDF is a company that is too big to fail. So if EDF fails, then my taxes are going to go up to bail it out. So ideally, EDF would be having a more, let's say, diversification approach. They're going to go for nuclear. It's in line with what the government wants, which is also largely the consensus now in the French political system. But they should also go much further on renewables and solar thermal energy and energy efficiency. They already do that, but to a very limited extent.Alasdair:
I'd like to move on to sufficiency. And you mentioned this earlier in relation to nuclear energy. Could you explain to listeners what sufficiency is? And can you also just say kind of a little bit about how it's developing in French government and also maybe about how it's viewed elsewhere, et cetera?Thomas:
So sufficiency is a term that has been defined by the IPCC, the scientists that do the synthesis of climate science. And the IPCC defines sufficiency as a set of behaviours and policies that allow us to achieve wellbeing while limiting our consumption of water, of land, of energy, et cetera, and remaining within planetary boundaries. It's the idea that you've got enough to be out of poverty and achieve sufficiency, and you don't fall into the other extreme that is having an excessive consumption of energy, of water, of land. So it's that idea of the golden mean. It's that ancient Greek philosophy idea of finding an equilibrium, avoiding misery, but also avoiding hubris. So that's the philosophy behind it. Then, in terms of policies, how do you make that happen? So the government has done the usual stuff, which is just to communicate, which is helpful. But if you take sufficiency seriously, you need to think about it as a collective choice in our society, and you need to wonder, okay, what are the infrastructures we need to make sure that people can choose sufficiency lifestyles in the food world? French people being quite fond of food, as you know. If my kid goes to a canteen at his school, can he eat vegetarian? Is it an option, yes or no? If it is an option, you make a sufficiency behaviour possible because having a plant based meal is better from a climate and a resource and a land and a wealth perspective than eating a beef based meal. If you look at transportation, I happen to live in Paris. I don't own a car. If I'm car free, it's not because I'm better than people, just because that I happen to be in a city where public policy for decades, if not centuries, has built a system of public transportation biking lanes now. And if you want to take that a step further, the ideal sufficiency mode of transportation is walking. But if I want to walk, I want to be secure. And if I want to walk, I need sidewalks, I need pedestrian areas. But I also need a housing policy in my city that allows me to pay a decent rent and not an excessive rent close to where I'm working. And so you see that if you really think hard about sufficiency, it's no longer about just individuals making their own mind. There is clearly a degree of individual freedom of choice, but it's first and foremost about how we organise society, how we organise urban planning, public transportation, food supply in school canteens to restaurants. And so for now, sufficiency by the French government was approached first and foremost as a crisis measure. Crisis of gas, fossil fuel, war on Ukraine, we need to save gas. We need to save electricity. But what at least the minister, Agnès Pannier-Runacher, who is the energy minister, what she wants to do is really to build sufficiency in the long term. She say we did that in crisis mode because that was the emergency. But now we need to build structural sufficiency programmes in France to make sure that we reduce our energy consumption while living better, and we'll see how that will go. But at least what I like about that is I'm quite hopeful because France is at the vanguard on this, for some reason I can't explain, to be honest. And hopefully we're going to do a lot of mistakes and we're going to do all sort of stuff that works well and that can serve as inspiration for other countries.Alasdair:
And how do you think sufficiency is translating into party politics? Has it actually reached mainstream politics yet?Thomas:
There is a surprising consensus on this idea of sobriety, of sufficiency, in the French context. There were a few criticisms against Macron by his opponents at the beginning, but it's no longer, I mean, they continue to criticise him, but not on this. And so far we have avoided that pitfall of, you know, the kind of culture war nonsense that is obviously a massive risk on this. There is a bit of culture war around vegetarian food indeed, but that's not seen as being something about sufficiency. To me at least, it seems to be rather something that's just to win points politically, but it's not something that is part of a structural policy platform by French politicians, at least at this stage.Alasdair:
My thanks Thomas Pellerin-Carlin for his time as usual. There is further reading on this subject in our podcast blurb and do also check out our website for new land and climate writing at www.landclimate.org. Thanks for listening and until soon.