France's Belleville-sur-Loire nuclear power plant
The Belleville-sur-Loire nuclear power plant in central France.

Liberal’s French nuclear power claim melts down under scrutiny

Max Opray March 21, 2022

French President Emmanuel Macron plans to build 20 new nuclear power stations.


Mostly False. Mr Macron has proposed building six new reactors and a prototype small modular reactor, with a further eight reactors under consideration.

Liberal MP Jason Falinksi has argued that countries need to rely on a mix of power sources in the future, reinforcing his point by claiming the French president plans to build 20 more nuclear power stations – which he said will be used to support other European countries’ green energy transitions.

However, the claim significantly exaggerates the number of new reactors being constructed in France. French President Emmanuel Macron has proposed building six new reactors to replace the country’s ageing fleet, with a further eight under consideration.

The announcement did not specify how many, if any, new nuclear power plants could be built. France’s existing plants all incorporate multiple reactors.

In an interview with Sky News Australia on March 9, Mr Falinski, who chairs parliamentary standing committees on economics and tax, responded to a question about Australia’s coal policies by claiming that countries need a diverse range of energy options beyond wind and solar, including nuclear power in some parts of the world.

“Emmanuel Macron, who is often supported by the Labor Party in Australia, he’s announced he will be building 20 more nuclear power stations in France that will be part of the European energy grid,” he said (video mark 6min 30sec).

“So Germany can be very pure and say that they’re going to close down their nuclear power plants while buying nuclear energy from the French.”

When contacted about the claim, a spokesman for Mr Falinski told AAP FactCheck it was a reference to a February announcement by Mr Macron that “up to 14 plants” would be built. The spokesman said the MP also included “small modular reactors” to reach the 20 figure. Mr Falinski made a similar clarification on Twitter.

Asked for further information on how modular reactors related to the claim, the spokesman provided a Radio France Internationale article about the February announcement.

It includes a line that reads, “Emmanuel Macron is also expected to speak about the development of small nuclear reactors.” However, this is the only reference to small modular reactors in the article, and no figures were provided.

France’s power grid relies heavily on its operating fleet of 56 nuclear reactors, which provided 71 per cent of the country’s power mix in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

This meant the country had the lowest per-capita emissions of advanced economies. However the country’s ageing reactors, most of which were built by the early 1980s, were becoming increasingly unreliable, the IEA said. French authorities have previously outlined a goal of reducing nuclear to 50 per cent of the electricity mix by 2035.

Mr Macron’s February announcement included a goal that six new nuclear reactors would be built with studies launched into the construction of eight additional reactors. He said the aim was for construction of the first reactor to begin in 2028 and for it to be operating by 2035.

The proposal only extended to the construction of up to 14 new reactors, rather than new nuclear power plants. France’s existing plants feature between two and six reactors.

Mr Macron also proposed a billion-euro investment in small nuclear reactor technology with the goal of one prototype reactor by 2030. The plans were also set out in the annual report for state-owned power company EDF.

However, Nicolas Mazzucchi, energy research fellow at the Paris-based Strategic Research Foundation, told AAP FactCheck in an email that small nuclear reactor technology was not yet mature enough to deploy, and that aspect of Mr Macron’s energy plan was focused on research and development.

“Due to the low maturity of these reactors, there is no official planning for a fixed number of (these reactors),” Dr Mazzucchi said.

Nicolas Berghmans, an energy and climate expert at the Paris-based Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, told AAP FactCheck in an email that the nuclear reactors were just at the proposal stage, and there were several steps to clear before France committed to building them.

“The next French energy plan needs to be voted on by the next parliament, the reactor’s financing is still to be defined and additionally the design will need to be checked by the nuclear security agency and public consultations are also mandatory,” he said.

“This announcement is a first step of a long process, that is the reason why the nearest in time commission date estimated by the French power company EDF is 2035. On top of this, we have our presidential election in less than a month and parliamentary elections in June, whose results might change these decisions.”

Mr Macron said the next step in the plan was to start a public consultation process before taking the proposal to parliament for debate in 2023. Nuclear energy was only one part of the proposal, with the president also aiming to double renewable energy production by 2030.

He also emphasised the new nuclear reactors were needed to help replace the country’s existing fleet of reactors, and that due to the lengthy lead-in times current reactors would need to undergo work to extend their lifespans further.

In January, 10 of France’s 56 reactors were out of service for various reasons, accounting for about 20 per cent of the country’s nuclear capacity. Many of the country’s reactors were built more than 40 years ago but were initially licensed to operate for only 30 years.

The Verdict

Mr Falinski is incorrect to claim that French President Emmanuel Macron announced the construction of 20 more nuclear power stations.

Mr Macron has proposed to build six new reactors, rather than power plants, with the first to potentially begin construction in 2028. A further eight are under consideration, while the development of a prototype small modular reactor has also been proposed. The plan is yet to be passed by the French parliament.

Mostly False – The claim is mostly inaccurate but includes minor elements of truth.

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