France could close a third of its nuclear reactors, says minister

France's new environment minister said Monday nearly a third of the country's reactors could be shut under plans to scale back the amount of electricity produced from nuclear power.

France could close a third of its nuclear reactors, says minister
Photo: AFP

In 2015, the previous Socialist-dominated parliament passed a law obliging the government to reduce the proportion of electricity generated from nuclear to 50 percent by 2025 compared with around 75 percent now.

“We can all understand that to reach this target, we're going to have to close a certain number of reactors,” Nicolas Hulot told RTL radio. “It will be perhaps as high as 17 reactors, but we need to look into it.”

Hulot, a celebrity environmentalist, was named minister for ecological transition in the first government of 39-year-old centrist President Emmanuel Macron, elected in May.

He presented a Climate Plan last Thursday which included a number of ambitious targets for reducing emissions, such as stopping the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040, but it was criticised by some for lacking detail.

France has 58 nuclear reactors operated by state-owned EDF, which produces some of the lowest-cost electricity in Europe.

The country earns about EUR3 billion ($3.4 billion) each year from exports to neighbouring countries.

The ageing nuclear power network was once a source of national pride, but support fell after the disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011 and the government is keen to encourage the transition to renewable energy sources.

Around three-quarters of French plants will reach the end of their 40-year lifespan by 2027, having been built in the 1970s and 80s in response to oil-price shocks.

They face lengthy safety vetting processes, hefty investment and political challenges to gain extensions in their operating life.

“It's a very interesting announcement because it's the first time that we have a figure and a government that is prepared to take on the dogma about not shutting reactors,” a spokesman for the Leave Nuclear campaign group, Charlotte Mijeon, told AFP.

Closing the country's oldest nuclear plant in eastern France proved to be immensely difficult and was decided only in April this year at the end of ex-president Francois Hollande's term in office despite being a campaign pledge he made in 2012.

Local officials and trade unions opposed its shuttering, as did many conservative politicians in Paris who believe that France should maintain its world-leading position in nuclear power.

A new-generation nuclear plant is being built in Flamanville on the northwest coast of the country and is due to enter service in 2019, seven years later than first scheduled.

Costs are now expected to be 10.5 billion euros ($12 billion), at least three times higher than the original budget.


Scorching summer was France’s second hottest on record

Three heatwaves since June produced France's second-hottest summer since records began in 1900, the Météo France weather service said on Tuesday, warning that scorching temperatures will be increasingly common as the climate crisis intensifies.

Scorching summer was France's second hottest on record

With 33 days of extreme heat overall, average temperatures for June, July and August were 2.3C above normal for the period of 1991-2020.

It was surpassed only by the 2003 heatwave that caught much of France unprepared for prolonged scorching conditions, leading to nearly 15,000 heat-related deaths, mainly among the elderly.

Data is not yet available for heat-related deaths this summer, but it is likely to be significantly lower than 15,000 thanks to preventative measures taken by local and national authorities. 

Most experts attribute the rising temperatures to the climate crisis, with Météo France noting that over the past eight summers in France, six have been among the 10-hottest ever.

By 2050, “we expect that around half of summer seasons will be at comparable temperatures, if not higher,” even if greenhouse gas emissions are contained, the agency’s research director Samuel Morin said at a press conference.

The heat helped drive a series of wildfires across France this summer, in particular a huge blaze in the southwest that burned for more than a month and blackened 20,000 hectares. 

Unusually, wildfires also broke out even in the normally cooler north of the country, and in total an area five times the size of Paris burned over the summer. 

Adding to the misery was a record drought that required widespread limits on water use, with July the driest month since 1961 – many areas still have water restrictions in place.

MAP: Where in France are there water restrictions and what do they mean?

Forecasters have also warned that autumn storms around the Mediterranean – a regular event as air temperatures cool – will be unusually intense this year because of the very high summer temperatures. A storm that hit the island of Corsica in mid August claimed six lives. 

“The summer we’ve just been through is a powerful call to order,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Monday, laying out her priorities for an “ecological planning” programme to guide France’s efforts against climate change.