France has one of the largest nuclear power programs in the world. Nuclear power plants in France generated 361 billion kilowatthours of electricity in 2021, accounting for 68% of the country’s annual electricity generation, the highest nuclear generation share in the world.
France has 56 operable nuclear reactors with a total capacity of 61 gigawatts (GW), second only to the 95 GW nuclear fleet in the United States. Nuclear plants accounted for 19% of U.S. electricity generation in 2021.
Although France’s first commercial nuclear reactor came online in the 1960s, the country began the large-scale plan to build its nuclear power fleet in the mid-1970s, following the 1973 oil crisis. At the time of the oil crisis, oil-burning power plants generated a significant share of France’s electricity.
France has few fossil fuel resources—coal, oil, or natural gas—of its own. To increase domestic energy supply and reduce reliance on imports, which could result in price shocks like during the oil crisis, it turned to nuclear power. Between 1975 and 1990, 52 new nuclear reactors were built and connected to France’s power grid.
Expanding the country’s nuclear fleet shifted France from an electricity importer to an electricity exporter. France has typically been the largest net electricity exporter in Europe, sending electricity to countries across the continent. France’s nuclear generation and electricity exports have recently become even more important to Europe, as it adjusts to severely reduced natural gas imports from Russia.
However, France’s nuclear power plants are aging. A record 26 of the country’s 56 nuclear reactors were offline heading into this winter, some for routine maintenance and others for inspection and repairs after corrosion issues were discovered in reactor pipes. Widespread reactor outages in 2022 resulted in a 24% decline in annual nuclear output—its smallest output in 30 years. EDF, which operates nuclear reactors in France, expects more nuclear generation in 2023 than in 2022, but less than in 2021.
Although President Francois Hollande’s administration put policies in place in 2014 to reduce the share of nuclear generation in France to 50% by 2025, the country is moving back toward using more nuclear generation. In February 2022, President Emmanuel Macron announced a plan to build six new reactors and to possibly build another eight by 2050. In addition, a next-generation European Pressurized Reactor, Flamanville Unit 3, has been under construction since 2007, and EDF expects it to start operations in 2024.
The planned expansion of nuclear power in France is in sharp contrast to four of its neighbors—Belgium, Germany, Spain, and Switzerland—which plan to close all of their reactors by 2030 or sooner.
Principal contributor: Elesia Fasching