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France’s Nuclear “Miracle” is More Fantasy that Fact

Here are some key findings from my analysis of what has mistakenly been called the French “nuclear miracle.”

*Nuclear reactors are not cheaper in France.  Nuclear power backers claim France has solved the problem of cost of new reactor construction through standardization and efficiencies of scale.
That is untrue. French reactors have escalated in price at almost the same rate as those in the U.S.

Consider two French construction projects now underway, one in Flamanville on the Normandy coast, and the other in Finland. Both are years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.  The troublesome reactor design that’s causing these problems has been proposed for construction on the Chesapeake Bay and is a leading candidate for a multi-billion-dollar U.S. loan guarantee. Even before ground is broken here, the projected cost of France’s design is well above the average for other reactor designs.

In the U.S., projections of the cost of reactor construction have tripled over the past decade. The implication of this price volatility has not escaped Wall Street. All of the U.S. utilities that have sought a nuclear construction license have seen their credit ratings downgraded. 
Four-fifths of those license applications have ultimately been suspended or delayed – in large part due to the uncertainties of cost, shrinking demand for new generating capacity or the availability of private credit.

*Nuclear reactors crowd out energy efficiency efforts and renewable energy investments.  The French track record on energy efficiency and renewable energy is poor compared to similar European nations.  In France, commitment to huge nuclear reactors has led to excess generating
capacity which, in turn, has discouraged efficiency.  Consumption, not conservation, is critical to underwrite the bloated costs of these giant power stations.  That is not the direction the U.S. should set for its own energy policies.

By heavily subsidizing large central station generating facilities, France has drained away public and private incentives to cut energy use or develop alternative “green” generating capacity.

There is evidence that this has happened in the US.  States with no pending requests for new nuclear licenses have more renewable energy, set 10-year renewable energy goals that are 50 percent higher, spent three times as much on efficiency in 2006, saved over three times as much energy between 1992 and 2006, and have much stronger utility efficiency programs in place.

The U.S. has far more renewable energy options than France, giving it greater flexibility in making generating choices.  The U.S. consumes about 50 percent more electricity per dollar of gross domestic product per capita than France, which has one of the highest electricity
consumption among comparable Western European nations.  In comparison to all of Europe, the U.S. has renewable opportunities that are four times as great.  The potential to develop these alternatives must not be overlooked amid pressure to build reactors.

By copying the French model and pouring billions into new nuclear construction, the U.S. would siphon off available public funds for proven, cost-effective and environmentally responsible renewable generating capacity.

The French nuclear program has been a state-owned monopoly from the outset, heavily subsidized by the government.  It could not survive in a free market.  By copying the French model – both in its energy choices and its willingness to use public funds to subsidize an industry that has never been self-sustaining – the U.S. is heading down a dangerous path of nuclear socialism.

Far from holding up the French experience as a model of success, U.S. policy makers should be pointing to it as proof that a massive public commitment to nuclear power is NOT the best course for the U.S.  And it certainly is not where billions in taxpayer dollars should be committed. Money can’t and won’t solve the inherent problems that have plagued nuclear power from the beginning – both here and, most notably, in France.

Mark Cooper is a Fellow at the Institute for Energy and the Environment


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