• Information Papers

French Nuclear Power Program

(August 2007)

  • France derives over 75% of its electricity from nuclear energy. This is due to a long-standing policy based on energy security.
  • France is the world's largest net exporter of electricity, and gains over EUR 3 billion per year from this.
  • France has been very active in developing nuclear technology. Reactors and fuel products and services are a major export.

France has 59 nuclear reactors operated by Electricité de France (EdF) with total capacity of over 63 GWe, supplying over 430 billion kWh per year of electricity, 78% of the total generated there. In 2005 French electricity generation was 549 billion kWh net and consumption 482 billion kWh - 7700 kWh per person. Over the last decade France has exported 60-70 billion kWh net each year and EdF expects exports to continue at 65-70 TWh/yr.

The present situation is due to the French government deciding in 1974, just after the first oil shock, to expand rapidly the country's nuclear power capacity. This decision was taken in the context of France having substantial heavy engineering expertise but few indigenous energy resources. Nuclear energy, with the fuel cost being a relatively small part of the overall cost, made good sense in minimising imports and achieving greater energy security.

As a result of the 1974 decision, France now claims a substantial level of energy independence and almost the lowest cost electricity in Europe. It also has an extremely low level of CO2 emissions per capita from electricity generation, since over 90% of its electricity is nuclear or hydro.

Recent energy policy

In 1999 a parliamentary debate reaffirmed three main planks of French energy policy: security of supply (France imports more than half its energy), respect for the environment (especially re greenhouse gases) and proper attention to radioactive waste management. It was noted that natural gas had no economic advantage over nuclear for base-load power, and its prices were very volatile. Despite "intense efforts" there was no way renewables and energy conservation measures could replace nuclear energy in the foreseeable future.

Early in 2003 France's first national energy debate was announced, in response to a "strong demand from the French people", 70% of whom had identified themselves as being poorly informed on energy questions. A poll had shown that 67% of people thought that environmental protection was the single most important energy policy goal. However, 58% thought that nuclear power caused climate change while only 46% thought that coal burning did so.

The debate was to prepare the way for defining the energy mix for the next 30 years in the context of sustainable development at a European and at a global level. The role of nuclear power was central to this, along with specific decisions concerning the European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR), and defining the role of renewable energies in the production of electricity, in thermal uses and transport.

In May 2006 the EdF board approved construction of a new 1650 MWe EPR unit at Flamanville, Normandy, alongside two existing 1300 MWe units. The decision is seen as "an essential step in renewing EDF's nuclear generation mix".

First concrete is scheduled for December 2007 and provisional takeover by EdF May 2012 after a 54-month construction period. In January 2007 EdF ordered the main nuclear part of the reactor from Areva. The turbine section was ordered in 2006 from Alstom. This means that 85% of the plant's projected EUR 3.3 billion cost (US$ 2700/kW) is locked in.

Under a 2005 agreement with EdF the Italian utility ENEL was to have a 12.5% share in the Flamanville-3 plant, taking rights to 200 MWe of its capacity and being involved in design, construction and operation of it. However, early in 2007 EdF backed away from this and said it would build the plant on its own and take all of the output.

In January 2006 the President announced that the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) was to embark upon designing a prototype Generation IV reactor to be operating in 2020, bringing forward the timeline for this by some five years. France has been pursuing three Gen IV technologies: gas-cooled fast reactor, sodium-cooled fast reactor, and very high temperature reactor (gas-cooled). While Areva has been working on the last two types, the main interest in the very high temperature reactors has been in the USA, as well as South Africa and China. CEA interest in the fast reactors is on the basis that they will produce less waste and will better exploit uranium resources, including the 220,000 tonnes of depleted uranium and some reprocessed uranium stockpiled in France.

If the CEA embarks on the sodium-cooled design, there is plenty of experience to draw on - Phenix and Superphenix - and they could go straight to a demonstration plant - the main innovation would be substituting gas for water as the intermediate coolant. A gas-cooled fast reactor would be entirely new and would require a small prototype as first step - the form of its fuel would need to be unique. Neither would operate at a high enough temperature for hydrogen production, but still CEA would participate in very high temperature R&D with the USA and east Asia.

In December 2006 the government's Atomic Energy Committee decided to proceed with a Generation IV sodium-cooled fast reactor prototype whose design features are to be decided by 2012 and the start up aimed for 2020. A new generation of sodium-cooled fast reactor with innovations intended to improve the competitiveness and the safety of this reactor type is the reference approach for this prototype. A gas-cooled fast reactor design is to be developed in parallel as an alternative option. The prototype will also have the mission of demonstrating advanced recycling modes intended to improve the ultimate high-level and long-lived waste to be disposed of. The objective is to have one type of competitive fast reactor technology ready for industrial deployment in France and for export after 2035-2040. The prototype, possibly built near Phenix at Marcoule, will be 250 to 800 MWe and is expected to cost about EUR 1.5 to 2 billion. The project will be led by the CEA.

Economic Factors

France's nuclear power program has cost some FF 400 billion in 1993 currency, excluding interest during construction. Half of this was self-financed by Electricité de France, 8% (FF 32 billion) was invested by the state but discounted in 1981, and 42% (FF 168 billion) was financed by commercial loans. In 1988 medium and long-term debt amounted to FF 233 billion, or 1.8 times EdF's sales revenue. However, by the end of 1998 EdF had reduced this to FF 122 billion, about two thirds of sales revenue (FF 185 billion) and less than three times annual cash flow. Net interest charges had dropped to FF 7.7 billion (4.16% of sales) by 1998.

In 2006 EdF sales revenue was EUR 58.9 billion and debt had fallen to EUR 14.9 billion - 25% of this.

TThe cost of nuclear-generated electricity fell by 7% from 1998 to 2001 and is now about EUR 3 cents/kWh, which is very competitive in Europe. The back-end costs (reprocessing, wastes disposal, etc) are fairly small when compared to the total kWh cost, typically about 5%.

From being a net electricity importer through most of the 1970s, France now has steadily growing net exports of electricity, and is the world's largest net electricity exporter, with electricity being France's fourth largest export. (Next door is Italy, without any operating nuclear power plants. It is Europe's largest importer of electricity, most coming ultimately from France.) The UK has also become a major customer for French electricity.

France's nuclear reactors comprise 90% of EdF's capacity and hence are used in load-following mode and are even sometimes closed over weekends, so their capacity factor is low by world standards, at 77.3%. However, availability is almost 84%.

Reactor engineering

The first eight power reactors were gas-cooled, as championed by the Atomic Energy Authority (CEA), but EdF then chose pressurised water reactor (PWR) types, supported by new enrichment capacity.

Apart from one experimental fast breeder reactor (Phenix), all French units are now PWRs of three standard types designed by Framatome - now Areva NP (the first two derived from US Westinghouse types): 900 MWe (34), 1300 MWe (20) and 1450 MWe N4 type (4). This is a higher degree of standardisation than anywhere else in the world. (Another large fast reactor - Super Phenix - was commissioned but then closed for political reasons.)

The 900 MWe reactors all had their lifetimes extended by ten years in 2002, after their second 10-yearly review. Most started up late 1970s to early 1980s, and they are reviewed together in a process that takes four months at each unit. A review of the 1300 MWe class followed and in October 2006 the regulatory authority cleared all 20 units for an extra ten years' operation conditional upon minor modifications at their 20-year outages over 2005-14.

In the light of operating experience, EdF uprated its four Chooz and Civaux N4 reactors fom 1455 to 1500 MWe each in 2003.

France has exported its PWR reactor technology to Belgium, South Africa, South Korea and China. There are two 900 MWe French reactors operating at Koeberg, near Capetown in South Africa, two at Ulchin in South Korea and four at Daya Bay and Lingao in China, near Hong Kong.

Framatome in conjunction with Siemens in Germany then developed the European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR), based on the French N4 and the German Konvoi types, to meet the European Utility Requirements and also the US EPRI Utility Requirements. This was confirmed in 1995 as the new standard design for France and it received French design approval in 2004.

In mid 2004 the board of EdF decided in principle to build the first demonstration unit of an expected series of 1630 MWe Areva NP EPRs, and this decision was confirmed in May 2006, after public debate. The overnight capital cost is expected to be EUR 3.3 billion, and power from it EUR 4.6 c/kWh - about the same as from new combined cycle gas turbine at current gas prices and with no carbon emission charge. Series production costs are projected at about 20% less. EDF then submitted a construction licence application. Site works at Flamanville on the Normandy coast should be complete and the first concrete poured about the end of 2007, with construction taking 57 months and completion expected in 2012. EdF is aiming to firm up an industrial partnership with other European utilities or power users for its construction. (Finland is also building an EPR unit at Olkiluoto.)

In August 2005 EdF announced that it plans to replace its 58 present reactors with EPR nuclear reactors from 2020, at the rate of about one 1600 MWe unit per year. It would require 40 of these to reach present capacity. This will be confirmed about 2015 on the basis of experience with the initial EPR unit at Flamanville - use of other designs such as Westinghouse's AP1000 or GE's ASBWR is possible. EdF's development strategy selected the nuclear replacement option on the basis of nuclear's "economic performance, for the stability of its costs and out of respect for environmental constraints."

French nuclear power reactors

Reactor MWe net, each start
Belleville 1 & 2
6/88, 1/89
Blayais 1-4
Bugey 2-3, 4-5
910, 880
Cattenom 1-4
Chinon B 1-4
Chooz B 1-2
5/00, 9/00
Civaux 1-2
3/00, 9/00
Cruas 1-4
Dampierre 1-4
Fessenheim 1-2
12/77, 3/78
Flamanville 1-2
12/86, 3/87
Golfech 1-2
2/91, 3/94
Gravelines B 1-4
Gravelines C 5-6
1/85, 10/85
Nogent s/Seine 1-2
2/88, 5/89
Paluel 1-4
Penly 1-2
12/90, 1192
Saint-Alban 1-2
5/86, 3/87
Saint-Laurent B 1-2
Tricastin 1-4
Total (59)

There have been two significant fast breeder reactors in France. Near Marcoule is the 233 MWe Phenix reactor, which started operation in 1974. It was shut down for modification 1998-2003 and is expected to run for a further few years.

A second unit was Super-Phenix of 1200 MWe, which started up in 1996 but was closed down for political reasons at the end of 1998 and is now being decommissioned. The operation of Phenix is fundamental to France's research on waste disposal, particularly transmutation of actinides. See further information in R&D section below.

All but four of EdF's nuclear power plants (14 reactors) are inland, and require fresh water for cooling. Eleven of the 15 inland plants (32 reactors) have cooling towers, using evaporative cooling, the others use simply river or lake water directly. With regulatory constraints on the temperature increase in receiving waters, this means that in very hot summers generation output may be limited.

Fuel Cycle - front end

France uses some 12,400 tonnes of uranium oxide concentrate (10,500 tonnes of U) per year for its electricity generation. Much of this comes from Areva in Canada (4500 tU/yr) and Niger (3200 tU/yr) together with other imports, principally from Australia, Kazakhstan and Russia, mostly under long-term contracts.

Beyond this, it is self-sufficient and has conversion, enrichment, uranium fuel fabrication and MOX fuel fabrication plants operational (together with reprocessing and a waste management program). Most fuel cycle activities are carried out by Areva NC.

Uranium concentrates are converted to hexafluoride at the 14,000 t/yr Comurhex Pierrelatte plant in the Rhone Valley, which commenced operation in 1959. In May 2007 Areva NC announced plans for a new conversion project - Comurhex II - with facilities at Malvesi and Tricastin to strengthen its global position in the front end of the fuel cycle. The EUR 610 million facility will have a capacity of 15,000 tU/yr from 2012, with scope for increase to 21,000 tU/yr.

Enrichment then takes place at the 1978 Eurodif plant at Tricastin nearby, with 10.8 million SWU capacity (enough to supply some 81,000 MWe of generating capacity - about one third more than France's total).

In 2003 Areva agreed to buy a 50% stake in Urenco's Enrichment Technology Company (ETC), which comprises all its centrifuge R&D, design and manufacturing activities. The deal will enable Areva to use Urenco/ETC technology to replace its 10.8 million SWU/yr Eurodif gas diffusion enrichment plant at Tricastin.

The final agreement after approval by the four governments involved was signed in mid 2006, and the construction licence was approved by ASN in February 2007. The EUR 3 billion two-unit plant, with nominal annual capacity of 7.5 million SWU, will be built and operated by Areva NC subsidiary Societe d'Enrichissement du Tricastin (SET). The first stages of the first unit are expected to begin operating in 2009 and it will reach full capacity in 2014. The second unit will follow four years behind.

Enrichment will be up to 6% U-235, and reprocessed uranium will only be handled in the second, north unit.

When fully operational in 2018 the whole plant will free up some 3000 MWe of Tricastin nuclear power plant's capacity for the French grid - over 20 billion kWh/yr (@ 4 c/kWh this is EUR 800 million/yr). The new enrichment plant investment is equivalent to buying new power capacity @ EUR 1000/kW.

Fuel fabrication is at several Areva plants in France and Belgium.

Fuel cycle - back end

France chose the closed fuel cycle at the very beginning of its nuclear program, involving reprocessing used fuel so as to recover uranium and plutonium for re-use and to reduce the volume of high-level wastes for disposal. Recycling allows 30% more energy to be extracted from the original uranium and leads to a great reduction in the amount of wastes to be disposed of. Overall the closed fuel cycle cost is assessed as comparable with that for direct disposal of used fuel, and preserves a resource which may become more valuable in the future. Back end services are carried out by Areva NC.

Used fuel from the French reactors is sent to Areva NC's La Hague plant in Normandy for reprocessing. This treatment extracts the plutonium and uranium for recycling, leaving 3% of the material as high-level wastes which are vitrified and stored there for later disposal.

EdF sends for reprocessing 850 tonnes out of about 1200 tonnes of used fuel discharged per year. The rest is preserved for later reprocessing to provide the plutonium required for the start-up of Generation IV reactors. Reprocessing is undertaken about 15 years after discharge to produce 8.5 tonnes of plutonium and 810 tonnes of reprocessed uranium (RepU). The plutonium is immediately shipped to the 195 t/yr Melox plant near Marcoule for prompt fabrication into about 100 tonnes of mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel, which can be used in 22 of EdF's 900 MWe reactors.

The recycled uranium (RepU) is converted in Comurhex plants at Pierrelatte, either to U3O8 for interim storage, or to UF6 for re-enrichment in centrifuge facilities there*. The enriched RepU UF6 is then converted in Areva NP's FBFC Romans plant (capacity 150 t/yr) to UO2 fuel. EdF has demonstrated its use of in two Cruas 900 MWe power reactors since the mid 1980s. The RepU inventory constitutes a strategic resource and its increased utilization is an option under consideration by EdF taking into account the evolution of the natural uranium market.

*A problem with RepU is that conversion costs three times as much as that for fresh uranium, and enrichment needs to be separate because of U-232 and U-236 impurities (the former gives rise to gamma radiation, the latter means higher enrichment is required).

Areva has the capacity to reprocess up to 1700 tonnes per year of used fuel in its La Hague facility and to produce and market 195 t/year of MOX fuel at its Melox plant for French and foreign customers. In Europe 35 reactors have been loaded with MOX fuel. Contracts for MOX fuel supply were signed in 2006 with Japanese utilities. All these fuel cycle facilities comprise a significant export industry and have been France's major export to Japan.

France's back-end strategy and industrial developments are to evolve progressively in line with future needs and technological developments. The existing plants at La Hague (commissioned around 1990) have been designed to operate for at least forty years, so with operational and technical improvements taking place on a continuous basis they are expected to be operating until around 2040. This will be when Generation IV plants (reactors and advanced treatment facilities) should come on line. In this respect, three main R&D areas for the next decade include:

  • The COEX process based on co-extraction/co-conversion of uranium and plutonium as designed for Generation III recycling plants and which is close to near-term industrial deployment (this eliminates separation of plutonium on its own).
  • Selective separation of long-lived radionuclides (with a focus on Am and Cm separation) from short-lived fission products based on the optimization of DIAMEX-SANEX processes for their recycling in Generation IV fast neutron reactors. This option can also be implemented with a combination of COEX and DIAMEX-SANEX processes.
  • Group extraction of actinides (GANEX process) as a long term R&D goal for a homogeneous recycling of actinides in Generation IV fast neutron reactors. This is envisaged as replacing the present La Hague process about 2040 and will reduce the toxicity and heat output of final wastes.


Waste disposal is being pursued under France's 1991 Waste Management Act (updated 2006) which established ANDRA as the national radioactive waste management agency and which set the direction of research - mainly undertaken at the Bure underground rock laboratory in eastern France, situated in clays. Another laboratory is researching granites. Research is also being undertaken on partitioning and transmutation, and long-term surface storage of wastes following conditioning. Wastes disposed of are to be retrievable.

ANDRA reported to government so that parliament could decide on the precise course of action. After strong support in the National Assembly and Senate the Nuclear Materials and Waste Management Program Act was passed in June 2006 to apply for 15 years. This formally declares deep geological disposal as the reference solution for high-level and long-lived radioactive wastes, and sets 2015 as the target date for licensing a repository and 2025 for opening it. It also affirms the principle of reprocessing used fuel and using recycled plutonium and uranium "in order to reduce the quantity and toxicity" of final wastes, and calls for construction of a prototype fourth-generation reactor by 2020 to test transmutation of long-lived actinides. The cost of the repository is expected to be around EUR 15 billion: 40% construction, 40% operation for 100 years, and 20% ancillary (taxes and insurance). Funds for waste management and decommissioning remain segregated but with the producers rather than in an external fund.

The Act defines three main principles concerning radioactive waste and substances: reduction of the quantity and toxicity, interim storage of radioactive substances and ultimate waste, and deep geological disposal. A central point is the creation of a national management plan defining the solutions, the goals to be achieved and the research actions to be launched to reach these goals. This plan is updated every three year and published according to the law on nuclear transparency and security.

The Act is largely in line with recommendations to government from the Commission Nationale d'Evaluation (CNE) or National Scientific Assessment Committee following 15 years of research. Their report identified the clay formation at Bure as the best site, but was sceptical of partitioning and transmutation for high-level wastes, and said that used MOX fuel should be stored indefinitely as a plutonium resource for future fast neutron reactors, rather than being recycled now or treated as waste.

Earlier, an international review team reported very positively on the plan by ANDRA for a deep geological repository complex in clay at Bure.

In April 2007 the government appointed 12 new members to the CNE to report on progress in France's waste management R&D across EdF, CEA, ANDRA and the National Centre for Scientific Research.

EdF sets aside EUR 0.14 cents/kWh of nuclear electricity for waste management costs, and said that the 2004 Areva contract was economically justified even in the new competitive environment of EU electricity supply. Total provisions at end of 2004 amounted to EUR 13.4 billion, EUR 9.6 billion for reprocessing (including decommissioning of facilities) and EUR 3.8 billion for disposal of high-level and long-lived wastes.


Eleven experimental and power reactors are being decommissioned in France, eight of them first-generation gas-cooled, graphite-moderated types, six being very similar to the UK Magnox type. There are well-developed plans for dismantling these (which have been shut down since 1990 or before). However, progress awaits the availability of sites for disposing of the intermediate-level wastes and the alpha-contaminated graphite from the early reactors.

The other three include the 1200 MWe Super Phenix fast reactor, the 1966 prototype 305 MWe PWR at Chooz, and an experimental GCHWR at Brennilis, which ran 1967-85. A licence was issued for dismantling this in 2006.

Organisation and financing of final decommissioning of the UP1 reprocessing plant at Marcoule was settled in 2004, with the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) taking it over. The total cost is expected to be some EUR 5.6 billion. The plant was closed in 1997 after 39 years of operation, primarily for military purposes but also taking the spent fuel from EdF's early gas-cooled power reactors. It was operated under a partnership - Codem, with 45% share by each of CEA and EdF and 10% share by Cogema (now Areva NC). EdF and Areva will now pay CEA EUR 1.5 billion and be clear of further liability.

EdF puts aside EUR 0.14 cents/kWh for decommissioning and at the end of 2004 it carried provisions of EUR 9.9 billion for this. By 2010 it will have fully funded the eventual decommissioning of its nuclear power plants (from 2035). Early in 2006 it held EUR 25 billion segregated for this purpose, and is on track for EUR 35 billion in 2010. Areva has dedicated assets already provided at the level of its future liabilities.

Regulation & Safety

The General Directorate for Nuclear Safety and Radiological Protection (DGSNR) was set up in 2002 by merging the Directorate for Nuclear Installation Safety (DSIN) with the Office for Protection against Ionising Radiation (OPRI) to integrate the regulatory functions and to "draft and implement government policy."

In 2006 the new Nuclear Safety Authority (Autorite de Surete Nucleaire - ASN) - an independent body with five commissioners - became the regulatory authority responsible for nuclear safety and radiological protection, taking over these functions from the DGSNR, and reporting to the Ministers of Environment, Industry & Health. However, its major licensing decisions will still need government approval.

Research is undertaken by the ISRN - the Institute for Radiological Protection & Nuclear Safety, also set up in 2002 from two older bodies. ISRN is the main technical support body for ASN and also advises DGSNR.

Research and Development

The Atomic Energy Commission (Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique - CEA) was set up in 1945 and is the public R&D corporation responsible for all aspects of nuclear R&D.

The CEA has 14 research reactors of various types and sizes in operation, all started up 1959 to 1980, the largest of these (apart from Phenix) being 70 MWt. About 17 units dating from 1948 to 1982 are shut down or decommissioning.

In 2004 the US energy secretary signed an agreement with the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) to gain access to the Phenix experimental fast neutron reactor for research on nuclear fuels. The US Department of Energy acknowledged that this fast neutron "capability no longer exists in the USA". The US research with Phenix will irradiate fuel loaded with various actinides under constant conditions to help identify what kind of fuel might be best for possible future waste transmutation systems.

In mid 2006 the CEA signed a four-year EUR 3.8 billion R&D contract with the government, including development of two types of fast neutron reactors: an improved version of the sodium-cooled type which already has 45 reactor-years operational experience in France, and an innovative gas-cooled type. Both would have fuel recycling, and by 2009 a decision will be taken on whether this should be of uranium and plutonium only, or also minor actinides as envisaged in the USA. CEA will also support industry in developing a very high temperature reactor for hydrogen production.

In March 2007 the CEA started construction of a 100 MWt materials test reactor at Cadarache. The Jules Horowitz reactor is the first such unit to be built for several decades, and has been identified by the EU as a key infrastructure facility to support nuclear power development, as well as producing radioisotopes and irradiating silicon for high-performance electronic use. The EUR 500 million cost is being financed by a consortium including CEA (50%), EdF (20%), Areva (10%) and EU research institutes (20%). Since the anticipated planned high-density U-Mo fuel will not be ready in time for 2013, it will start up on uranium silicide fuel enriched to 27%.


France is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which it ratified in 1992 as a nuclear weapons state. Euratom safeguards apply in France and cover all civil nuclear facilities and materials.

In addition, IAEA applies its safeguards activities in accordance with the trilateral "voluntary offer" agreement between France, Euratom and the IAEA which entered into force in 1981.

France undertook nuclear weapons tests 1960-95 and ceased production of weapons-grade fissile materials in 1996. Since then it has ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

EdF, Nov 1996, Review of the French Nuclear Power Programme, EdF web site
IAEA 2003, Country nuclear power profiles.
Nuclear Review, July 2001.
NuclearFuel & Nucleonics Week, August 2005
Areva - major review of paper in July 2007.