Exposing myths about building French nuclear power – How French nuclear construction times and costs have been getting longer and longer – for a long time

It has been standard in the UK to talk about the wonders of the French nuclear programme and how if only we copied them nuclear power would get cheaper and cheaper. The story has gone ‘If only we built a series of nuclear power plant like they did’. But it turns out that the idea that the French nuclear programme was ever getting any cheaper was a myth.

In the UK Government policy documents would use their own language to describe nuclear prospects. Special terms are used that are not usually used to discuss other energy developments. These include the acronym ‘FOAK’ which stands for ‘First of a Kind’. In other words the first plant will be relatively more expensive than the plants of the same model that followed them. Another term used of course is ‘overnight’ costs – that is a wonderful piece of euphemism given that nuclear power plants are anything but built overnight. The use of the term ‘overnight costs’ obscures the fact that very large interest costs mount up during the time that the plant is being constructed, costs which are not included in the total cost estimates. That is because the plant in the spreadsheet is being built overnight (?!).

But when we examine the actual ‘overnight’ costs of French nuclear power, as reported, they have always been increasing. Look at the analysis by Arnulf Grubler published in the journal Energy Policy in 2010:

Source: Grubler, A (2010) The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing, Energy Policy Vol 38 5174–5188, Table 1 p 5755

Grubler’s analysis did not include the length of time taken to construct the latest French nuclear power plant at Flamanville. This is an EPR (the same design as is being built at Hinkley C and planned for Sizewell C. Construction of the Flamanville EPR began in 2007 but it has still not been completed. Hence the Figure below includes the time taken to build Flamanville up until now, with the proviso that the plant still has not been completed.


Data up until Flamanville taken from : Source: Grubler, A (2010) The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing, Energy Policy Vol 38 5174–5188, Table 1 p 5755

It should be understood that, broadly speaking, the cost of building reactors is proportionate to the amount of construction time. So the cost has gone up, and in recent years cost has been going up at a rapid rate,.

In my forthcoming book ‘Energy Revolutions – Profiteering versus Democracy’ I outliner four reasons for the increasing difficulties of building nuclear power plants:

‘First is the fact that nuclear power plant designers have incorporated safety features designed to minimise the consequences of nuclear accidents, but in doing so the plants have become much more complicated and difficult to build without great expense. A second reason is that large construction projects of whatever type, at least in the West, tend to greatly overrun their budgets. In the West, improvements in health and safety regulations to protect construction workers have no doubt played a part in this. A third factor is that, in the West at least, the cheap industrialised labour force that dominated the industrial economies of the past and which could be used to develop nuclear programmes (in the way that France did in the 1980s) has ceased to exist. A fourth factor is simply that renewable energy technologies, especially wind and solar power, can be largely manufactured offsite in a modular fashion and their costs have rapidly fallen, leaving nuclear power increasingly uncompetitive.’ (page 30)

#Essentially, the idea of using nuclear power as a significant measure to engineer the global energy transition is at best a tremendous waste of resources. It is not just France that is seeing its nuclear power programme stall. It is a global phenomenon. Renewable energy is, by contrast, expanding at ever-incredible rates. As can be seen from the following graphs which is taken from my book ‘Energy Revolutions’. See HERE for details

by David Toke
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