Energy SecurityFrance Sets to Invest in Small Modular Nuclear Reactors

By Lisa Louis

Published 22 October 2021

France plans to invest in small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). Some experts question whether this is ecologically and economically sensible, but it may be that France’s interests in SMRs is as much about geopolitical strategy as it is about energy.

In the wake of the disaster at nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi 10 years ago, numerous countries have reviewed their stance on nuclear energy. A tsunami had hit the coast of Japan and flooded the power station, triggering several nuclear meltdowns.

Germany, for example, subsequently decided to bring forward its planned nuclear phaseout to 2022. In Italy, 95% of the population voted in a referendum against a return to nuclear power.

Meanwhile, countries such as Finland, the United States, Russia and France have kept their nuclear plants online, and even decided to expand in recent years.

A French law says the country will have to reduce its share of nuclear energy from currently roughly 70% — the highest in the world — to 50% in 2035, a goal President Emmanuel Macron has in the past called unrealistic. 

But in pursuing small modular reactors (SMRs), some experts believe France may have a hidden agenda.

€1 Billion Planned Investment
Recently, the president announced plans to invest in so-called small modular reactors (SMRs) “to lead the sector with groundbreaking innovations.” The new reactors are ostensibly to help France reduce its CO2 emissions.

The announcement came when Macron unveiled his France 2030 investment strategy of €30 billion ($35 billion) at the Elysee Palace.

We have a decisive competitive advantage — our historical model, the existing nuclear power plants,” the president said during the ceremony.

The strategy allocates €8 billion to the development of hydrogen power and only €1 billion to SMRs, yet Macron declared the plans to develop the small plants “goal No. 1.”

The country’s SMRs will have a capacity of 50 megawatts to 500 MW each – considerably less than France’s current reactors with their capacity of up to 1,450 MW. SMRs are to be built in clusters to increase sites’ total capacity.

But nuclear champion France is not the frontrunner in the SMR race — the US is. Portland-based startup NuScale Power is the world’s first company to have its SMR design approved, and is planning on completing a first 60 MW plant in 2027. And Russia’s public company Rosatom is aiming for a first SMR on land in 2028 in the northeastern province of Sakha.

France “Can Take the Lead” in SMR Sector
France’s first demonstration plant is only scheduled to be completed in 2030.

And yet, Nicolas Mazzucchi, of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, thinks the country could take the lead in the sector.