ZFrench President Emmanuel Macron has formulated his goals to make his country fit for the future. Some of the unsurprising points include the decarbonisation of industry, the desired leadership role in “green” hydrogen and the stimulation of electromobility.
The promotion of climate-friendly aviation, space travel and the sea floor also contain little explosives. The same applies to the goals of encouraging investment in “healthy, sustainable and traceable” food, to put France “back at the forefront of cultural and creative content production” and to produce 20 bio-drugs for cancer and chronic diseases by the end of the decade.
The clear commitment to nuclear energy, on the other hand, makes you sit up and take notice. All the more so since Macron explicitly focused on mini power plants, so-called Small Modular Reactors (SMR). Macron thinks it has a promising future and spoke of the “reinvention” of nuclear energy. The one billion euros in government funding is money well invested. Because good ideas shouldn’t fail because of funding.
So far, however, SMR has practically only existed on paper. This refers to systems with an output of up to 300 megawatts. Conventional nuclear power plants are significantly larger; the Flamanville pressurized water reactor currently under construction in Normandy, for example, has an output of around 1,600 megawatts. One SMR project is called Nuward, backed by the French companies EDF and Naval.
Reassessment of nuclear energy
It is not clear what role SMR will play in the energy market of the future. William Magwood, Director General of the global nuclear energy authority NEA, recently called them “possible game changers” in an interview with the FAZ. Because they had characteristics that the large commercial reactors would not have, especially safety. The Nuscale reactor type developed in America, for example, consists of several small reactor cores, each of which is surrounded by an enormous amount of water. “That way, there can never be a meltdown,” says Magwood. Plans for gas-cooled and molten salt reactors are also promising.
The experts in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also awarded SMR “the potential for improved safety”. But not everything that is technically possible also pays off. This is referred to by Andreas Löschel, who, as an energy economist, co-authored the IPCC’s last status report. “It is a major mortgage for nuclear power that the schedules and budgets of projects have been torn significantly in recent years,” he says. Investors currently have little confidence in the technology, especially since security standards have to be adjusted again and again.
Nuclear energy currently accounts for around 10 percent of the global electricity mix. Most of the reactors are in the USA, followed by France and China, which in turn is building most of the new plants. Until a few years ago, nuclear energy was considered to be phased out, but as a largely CO2-free source of energy, it is being reassessed in many places as part of climate protection. But investments in new conventionally built power plants like those in Flamanville would be inconceivable without government subsidies.
“Market launch more likely in the 2030s”
Energy economist Löschel emphasizes that it would probably need more than a billion euros to promote SMR on a larger scale. “SMR can definitely play a role in the energy world of tomorrow,” he says in an interview with the FAZ. “But there is a lot of hope and expectation, while with renewables you know exactly where you are – and ten years ago still very much has brought high costs down significantly. “
Especially since the new reactors are unlikely to be ready for the market quickly. It would be surprising that, as Macron had promised, SMR would be producing electricity as early as 2030. “In the 2020s, the focus will be on the development of prototypes and we will see which technology delivers what it promises,” says economist Löschel. “There is quite a large consensus among experts that the market launch of SMR can be expected more in the 2030s.”
SMR will have to prove themselves in a renewable world, because the electricity sector should actually be renewable by the mid-2030s, including storage and load management, according to Löschel. It will be difficult to justify the high investments. Löschel: “It’s a technology bet against a well-established technology for renewables and storage that is made with SMR.”