PARIS (REUTERS) - France will build at least six new nuclear reactors in the decades to come, President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday (Feb 10), placing nuclear power at the heart of his country's drive for carbon neutrality by 2050.
Macron said the new plants would be built and operated by state-controlled energy provider EDF and that tens of billions of euros in public financing would be mobilised to finance the projects and safeguard EDF's finances.
"What our country needs, and the conditions are there, is the rebirth of France's nuclear industry," Macron said, unveiling his new nuclear strategy in the eastern industrial town of Belfort.
Promising to accelerate the development of solar and offshore wind power in France, Macron also announced he wanted to extend the lifespan of older nuclear plants to 50 years or more from 40 years currently, provided it was safe.
The announcement comes at a difficult time for debt-laden EDF, which is facing delays and budget over-runs on new nuclear plants in France and Britain, and corrosion problems in some of its ageing reactors.
The nuclear blueprint cements France's commitment to nuclear power, a mainstay of the country's postwar industrial prowess but whose future was uncertain after Macron and his predecessor had promised to reduce its weight in the country's energy mix.
Macron's thinking has been reshaped by the European Union's ambitious goals for carbon neutrality within three decades, which put renewed focus on energy forms that emit fewer, or zero, greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, including nuclear.
Surging energy prices and concerns about Europe's reliance on imported Russian gas have also persuaded French officials of the region's need for more energy independence.
EDF estimates the cost of six new EPR reactors at about €50 billion (S$77 billion), depending on financing conditions.
The first new reactor, an evolution of the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), would come online by 2035, Macron said. Studies for a further eight reactors beyond the initial half-dozen new plants would be launched, he added.
France will also increase its solar power capacity tenfold by 2050 to more than 100 gigawatts (GW) and target building 50 offshore wind farms with a combined capacity of at least 40 GW.
Capacity from land-based wind turbines, which face strong public resistance, would only be doubled by 2050, he said.
Macron's decision to extend the lifespan of existing plants marked a U-turn on an earlier pledge to close more than a dozen of EDF's 56 reactors by 2035.
Nuclear safety still divides Europe after Japan's Fukushima disaster. France lobbied hard for nuclear to be labelled as sustainable under new European Commission rules on green financing.
If the new EU taxonomy rules are approved, it should reduce the cost of financing nuclear energy projects.
Macron said the state would assume its responsibilities in securing EDF's finances, indicating that the government may inject fresh capital into the 84 per cent state-owned firm.
The State will assume its responsibilities in securing EDF's finances and its short- and medium-term financing capacity," Macron said.
EDF's EPR reactors have suffered a troubled history. EPR projects at Flamanville in France and Hinkley Point in Britain are running years behind schedule and billions over budget, while EPR reactors in China and Finland have been hit by technical issues.
Separately EDF this week revised lower its output forecast for its nuclear fleet to 295-315 TWh compared to 361 TWh last year, in part due to extended reactor shutdowns due to corrosion problems in several reactors. If the level drops below 300 TWh, it would be at its lowest since 1990.
Compounding EDF's difficulties, Macron, who faces a re-election battle in two months and is striving to head off public anger over rising energy bills, has ordered the utility to sell more cheap power to rivals - a move that is will knock about €8 billion off EDF's 2022 core earnings.
EDF's share price is down 18 per cent so far in 2022.
EDF confirmed on Thursday it would buy a France-based nuclear turbine unit from General Electric as the utility looks to bundle nuclear activities deemed to be strategic.