France announces plans to build up to 14 nuclear reactors

President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that France would construct six nuclear reactors, and study the possibility of commissioning a further eight.

“Given the electricity needs, the need to also anticipate the transition and the end of the existing fleet, which cannot be extended indefinitely, we are going to launch today a program of new nuclear reactors,” Macron said.

Construction will commence in 2028, and the first new reactor could be commissioned by 2035.

The push deeper into nuclear marks a policy reversal for Macron, who promised four years ago to close 12 nuclear reactors as part of a move away from the power source. France was forced to turn to coal power this winter to meet its energy needs after more than a fifth of the country’s nuclear reactors went offline.

France wasn’t the only country in Europe to struggle this winter as wholesale gas prices spiked to record levels, pushing up heating bills for households across the continent. Struggling consumers in France received payments and grants from the government to help defray costs.

Barbara Pompili, France’s minister for energy transition, said the nuclear policy shift was needed due to an “acceleration” of the “unprecedented” energy situation.

“To have more electricity, we need to produce more,” Pompili told CNN affiliate BFMTV.

“Even if we develop a lot our renewable energies, we have a nuclear sector that constitutes 70% of our electricity supply, we have to use this sector as much as possible,” Pompili added.

Climate concerns

Nuclear power is a low-carbon source of energy. But nuclear plants are notoriously expensive to build, and construction tends to run over budget and time. How to safely store the radioactive waste it produces is another headache.

Despite those limitations, some analysts argue the technology has a big role to play in addressing climate change.

The International Energy Agency says that nuclear power generation should more than double between 2020 and 2050 in the pursuit of net zero. Its share in the electricity mix will drop, but that’s because demand for power will soar as the world electrifies as many machines as possible, including cars and other vehicles.

The European Commission was criticized earlier this month when it unveiled a proposal to designate natural gas and nuclear power “sustainable” sources of energy.

Including the energy sources on the EU green list could unlock a wave of private investment into new nuclear and gas projects. But the plans have angered climate activists and could still be blocked by European lawmakers, who are also deeply divided over the issue along national and political lines.

The European Union is aiming to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 55% from 1990 levels by 2030 and become a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050. Net zero is where emissions are dramatically reduced, and any that remain are offset, whether using natural methods like tree planting or technology to “capture” emissions.

— Julia Horowitz, Ivana Kottasová and Angela Dewan contributed reporting.

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