Monday, April 18, 2011

The Wisdom of France's Electricity Policy: The Decision to Go Nuclear in France

In a previous post, I discussed Germany's Electricity Follies and talked about how Germany has been making a lot of poor decisions in their electricity policy (such as over-subsidizing solar PV and starting to shut down old nuclear power plants.) These decisions will likely either lead to Germany's increased dependence on foreign natural gas or to Germany's decreased economic output.

On the other hand, I think that France has a rosy future. France decided long ago to stick with nuclear fission power, and I don't think there's any real turning back now. This decision seems extraordinarily wise because France is in a good position to grow in the future. While nuclear power is typically more expensive than fossil fuel power (either coal or natural gas), France's lack of any real reserves of fossil fuels (as opposed to China or the US) means that nuclear power is competitive with other forms of electricity. (So, while I'll argue here that France made the right choice to go nuclear, I don't necessarily believe that it's the right choice for the US or China, but it would have been a good choice for Germany who has already consumed most of the economically recoverable fossil fuels.)

France has made a lot of policy decisions that look good in retrospect (so far). One of these is the choice to reprocess spent nuclear fuel in breeder nuclear reactors. This means that France is less dependent on uranium from foreign countries because it breeds it's own fuel from the uranium not used in their conventional nuclear fission power plants. And here's another possible good decision (though, only time will tell.) France convinced the world to build a nuclear fusion power plant within its borders. After the 20-30 years of R&D research on the nuclear fusion device, it is likely that they could use the fusion reactor to generate high-energy neutrons at the scale required to convert nuclear fission waste into fuel for the conventional and breeder nuclear fission power plants. (See the following link to Nuclear Fusion Fission Hybrids)

This means that France may have the means of converting their nuclear waste into usable fuels. This would eliminate one of the major hiccups with nuclear fission: the radiative waste with long half-lives.

So, here's where things get even better. As car companies across the globe start building plug-in vehicles, France will be in a key position to grow their fleet of transportation vehicles without increasing their dependence on foreign oil or increasing their emissions of greenhouse gases.

The real question is: why isn't France supplying more electricity to its neighbors? What is keeping the rest of the EU from buying power from France's nuclear power plants? And more importantly, why is Germany subsidizing solar PV and wind electricity when it could buy power from France for a lot less money? (I have a lot of research to do to figure out the answer to this. Let me know in the comment section below if you have any good sites to visit to understand more about the EU's electricity trading policies and tariffs.)

France has decided to take the nuclear power risk and it appears to be paying off. And it seems that France is starting to feel comfortable with the responsibility that comes with its increased power: the responsibility to do good. And this is clear now that France is more actively engaging in the world (actively promoting democracy in places like Libya and Ivory Coast), while Germany is stuck dealing with its internal problems (like when to shut down nuclear power plants.)

I'm glad to see a more actively-engaged France, and I hope that France can handle the responsibility of its growing power. This means that France needs to be extra careful to avoid a nuclear accident. It also means that France needs to make sure that the R&D fusion device (ITER) actually gets built, and then they need to make sure that they continue the funding in order to convert it into a nuclear fission waste-to-fuel plant. Given the anti-nuclear tide in Japan and Germany, France will need to lead the way. And hopefully the US and China will be supportive of the fusion project, but ultimately, the responsibility lies in France's hand. They have made the choice of "going-nuclear" and they should follow through with their decision. It will be to their benefit in the end.

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