Skip to content

Atomic Energy Commission received 308 billion francs of subsidies for civilian nuclear research between 1946 and 1992 alone.

Electricity prices in France are among the lowest in Europe. The most recent comparison by Eurostat shows that the French households pay 12.5 cents per kilowatt hour, while the Germans have to pay 23.7 cents. Is the reason for this difference really the many nuclear power plants, as nuclear energy supporters say? About 80 percent of France’s electricity is generated in the 58 nuclear reactors in the country – more than anywhere else in the world. With an average age of 23 years, the power plants are largely written off. But the assumption of cheap nuclear power is increasingly being called into question.

Ironically it was the state-owned power generator Electricité de France (EDF) that has registered strong doubts about the costs. In its view, the government keeps the price of electricity too low, so much so that EDF cannot cover its expenses. Under pressure from the EU Commission, the French Parliament decided last November to reform the energy market. The former monopoly should not be destroyed, but forced to sell 25 percent of its nuclear electricity to competitors at cost price from 1 July 2011 onwards.

But what is the cost price? EDF says it’s 4.2 cents per kilowatt hour, competitors such as GDF Suez, however, demand 3.5 cents – the level that EDF uses for its public retail tariff today. The government has taken a very long time and still has not made a decision. EDF’s competitors already fear that President Nicolas Sarkozy will push the issue into the long grass to avoid a debate over rising electricity costs during the presidential campaign in 2012. EDF is lobbying for a substantial increase in electricity prices in order to cover the cost for maintaining its power stations. Sarkozy would prefer a dispute with the European Commission rather than to incur the displeasure of the electorate, political analysts suggest.

The anti-nuclear activists, meanwhile, use EDF’s arguments to point out that the low electricity prices have never covered the real costs of nuclear energy. This argument is supported by much evidence. Much of the cost has always been covered by the state, especially for the research by the State Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). The Commission has been instrumental in the birth and development of the French nuclear program.

According to the author Bruno Barrillot, an anti-nuclear activist, the CEA has received 308 billion francs (about 51 billion Euros) of state subsidies for civilian nuclear R&D between 1946 and 1992 alone. The nuclear industry received this research funding largely for free, built the power plants and wrote them off over the years. However, EDF has pointed out that the company is investing themselves in a substantial research effort with a budget of 486 million Euros. EDF now also supports the Atomic Energy Commission and other institutions like the international Materials Ageing Institute, said a company spokeswoman.

Expensive law

It is also debatable whether the nuclear industry has put away enough financial resources for the disposal of nuclear waste and the dismantling of power plants. Even estimating the costs for these activities is dividing the experts. France has been testing a disposal site at Bure, a small town in Lorraine, for years. The decision has not been taken yet but there might be the first French repository.

The original cost estimate is expected to increase from 15 to 35 billion Euros, according to many experts, because the French parliament, a few years ago, decided that it should be possible to return nuclear waste back to the surface in the future. This decision increases the cost of the technology. Last October, EDF chief Henri Proglio complained about the exploding costs. A senior official, however, was quoted in the French press, saying: “This is a safety issue, not a financial one”.

By law, all major players in the French nuclear industry have to make provisions for nuclear waste and dismantling the power plants: this affects the public power plant builder Areva for its reprocessing plant at La Hague, the CEA, EDF and the military for its nuclear weapons. EDF is required to withhold 17.9 billion euro; 6.5 billion Euros for the storage of nuclear waste, the rest for the dismantling of power plants.

Cost estimates always exceeded

The deadline for achieving these provisions has recently been extended from 2011 to 2016. EDF pays into a special fund every year. Earlier this year, the power company transferred half of its shares of the state-owned electricity transmission company RTE to this fund. The environmentalists criticised this move because they wondered whether the shares are sellable if EDF needs the money one day. RTE is to remain in public ownership under existing strategy; noting is known about any privatisation plans.

“In any case, the provisions are far too low”, says Maryse Arditi, an energy expert from the organization France Nature Environnement. “Around 1 billion Euros per reactor appears realistic to me”, she says. That would be around 58 billion Euros instead of today’s prescribed 17.9 billion Euros. The experience of the already partially decommissioned plants by EDF shows that the cost estimates have always been exceeded. This is confirmed by the French Court of Auditors. The dismantling of the reactor near Brennilis in Brittany, which was decommissioned 25 years ago, has been suspended by the French State Council in 2007 to conduct a thorough investigation. The reason: it is not known where to put the most contaminated parts.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 18 April 2011

Transl. Philipp Mueller