23 Jun 2023, 11:00
Camille Lafrance

France and Germany “agree on 90 percent” of energy issues, must close ranks - researcher

Turbines by German manufacturer Enercon in a wind farm by French operator EDF in southern France. Photo: EDF / Bruno Amsellem
Turbines by German manufacturer Enercon in a wind farm by French operator EDF in southern France. Photo: EDF / Bruno Amsellem

The role of nuclear power within Europe’s energy transition is a clear point of contention between Paris and Berlin. However, there is much more agreement between the EU’s two largest powers on major strategic priorities, including the need for expanding renewable power sources or energy transition technologies like battery or hydrogen production. According to Thomas Pellerin-Carlin, director of the EU Programme at the Paris-based Institute for Climate Economics (I4CE), the debate over Europe’s energy future should focus more on common ground instead of disputes and underline the EU's ideal of “unity in diversity.” 

Thomas Pellerin-Carlin leads the EU programme at the French Institute for Climate Economics (I4CE). Photo: I4CE

Clean Energy Wire: Disagreements between France and Germany on questions of energy security and emissions reduction have been laid bare by the European energy crisis. How deep are these divisions and are they reconcilable?

Thomas Pellerin-Carlin: Generally speaking, France and Germany are in profound agreement concerning the direction of the energy transition. The two countries share the objective of achieving climate neutrality in only about 25 years’ time, and are engaged in a policy of deep transformation of the economy and the energy system. They agree on the fact that we must first aim to save energy (“sobriété énergétique”), that we must seek greater energy efficiency, in particular by renovating buildings, and that a whole range of renewable energy sources must be installed. Therefore, they agree on 90 percent of the issues. There is only one point of real disagreement: nuclear power. Unfortunately, 70 percent of the debate emphasises this difference, and that's what creates political disagreements.

Why is nuclear power causing so much disagreement?

First of all, there is a major ideological difference over attitudes towards the role of the state between France and Germany. France remains attached to the power of a central state and large public companies. The appetite in France for what is called ‘Jacobinism’ – for a very powerful centralised government – meshes well with a state-owned company, EDF, having a de facto monopoly on nuclear power.
In Germany, the approach is very different. It is decentralised, based on the delegation of powers to lower levels of government. This works well with the installation of onshore wind turbines and solar panels. These installations can be managed by cooperatives of citizens, farmers or even via the famous Stadtwerke, Germany’s municipal utilities

How does France’s military reliance on nuclear weapons influence the debate on nuclear energy?

In France, nuclear power is intimately connected with the concept of sovereignty. This means first and foremost military sovereignty, especially after the trauma of the World Wars. Following the first oil shock of the 1970s, when energy sovereignty became an urgent issue, there was a kind of copy-paste narrative about nuclear independence flowing from military discourse to the civilian discourse through energy production. At the same time, EDF had taken on a very prominent position among the population. It enabled the electrification of rural areas after 1945, winning the fondness of many a French citizen. This laid the groundwork for a pro-nuclear political climate. Despite varying opinions within French society, a form of consensus rested on the premise that nuclear power was ultimately ‘good.’ 

Why was the development in post-war Germany so different?

Both West and East Germany did build nuclear power plants in the 1960s to 1980s, just like France, Sweden or the UK. However, as Germany did not have its own nuclear weapons programme, there was an absence of a narrative associating nuclear power with sovereignty. Despite the buildout of nuclear energy generation, a strong anti-nuclear movement developed in West Germany during those decades that positioned the country against both civil and military nuclear power use. All this needs to be understood in the context of the Cold War, which gave rise to a strong anti-nuclear sentiment already before the Soviet Union’s 1986 Chernoby disaster. The grave accident only further cemented the anti-nuclear stance in large parts of society.

The fight against nuclear energy was instrumental in the founding of the German Green Party in 1980. Yet, anti-nuclear sentiment gradually found its way into major German political parties, including the conservative CDU/CSU alliance and the Social-Democrats (SPD). In fact, in the early 2000s, a coalition of the Greens and the SPD adopted a consensus to end nuclear power generation and close plants faster than commercially driven calculations would have suggested.

Nuclear energy only comprises six percent of the final energy mix in the European Union. I would find it interesting if we dedicated no more than six percent of the EU energy debate to the issues nuclear energy.

Thomas Pellerin-Carlin

Is it true that Germany didn’t decide to close down nuclear power in reaction to the Fukishima, unlike what some voices in France sometimes claim?

Indeed, and this is one of the great myths clouding the French view of Germany. Many people, for ideological and political reasons, want to describe the German energy transition ('Energiewende') as something irrational, decided hastily after Fukushima. This is absolutely false. It wasn’t a purely reactive choice, but rather a decision rooted in decades of political struggle. In 2010, Angela Merkel agreed the nuclear phaseout plan with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), who were perhaps the only real pro-nuclear party in Germany at the time. In 2011, after Fukushima, there was essentially a return to the previously agreed procedure.

Did differences in the economic makeup of the two countries have an effect on their energy strategies?

The economic evolution of each national nuclear sector is largely a consequence of political choices. For decades in France there has been a near-total support of the nuclear industry. As a result, the French economy has specialised in nuclear value chains. Germany also had an extremely powerful nuclear industry, notably from the Siemens group, but when the political choice to end nuclear power was made, Germany’s economic structure changed. Siemens, for example, repositioned itself by selling its nuclear business and investing in other areas. Yet, Germany also handed out generous subsidies for new renewable power technologies that further enabled the closing of nuclear power generation, and companies adapted accordingly. By investing massively in wind power, Siemens has become a world leader in this sector. Moreover, so far, the Siemen’s investment in wind power has been much more economically sound than EDF's continued bet on nuclear fission.

In France, advocates of nuclear power argue that the sector is profitable and that the runtime of existing plants should be extended to take advantage of the return on investment. How valid are these arguments?

Broadly speaking, there is agreement among economists in most countries that it is reasonable, on an economic and climate level, to continue using nuclear reactors built in the 1970s and 1980s. This generally includes decisions to extend reactor lifetimes in a safe and reasonable manner until the point where, either for economic or security reasons, they should no longer be used. It is generally also well-known that reactors often must be renovated in order to extend their lifetime, for which economic viability is typically assessed on a case-by-case basis. On a large scale, extending the life of a reactor from 40 to 50, or even 60 years can very probably be profitable. Yet, there are obvious uncertainties - and this is first time we’ll be running reactors this old.

Given these complexities, what are the economic advantages and limits, in economic terms to expanding existing nuclear power infrastructure in France?
And what about the development of new nuclear power infrastructure? 

There is a broad consensus in France on extending the runtime of existing nuclear power plants. However, there is no such consensus on the construction of new reactors, since there are so many uncertainties, and given the building costs. We don't really have any references for building new nuclear power plants. On the face of it, Korean and Russian reactors seem to be economically viable, with low capital costs – and a high level of state support in the Russian case. Otherwise, in Europe, the nuclear industry is mostly French.

As of mid-2023, there is only one new nuclear reactor under construction in France, in Flamanville, in the north-west. It was planned to open in 2012 at a cost of 3.5 billion euros. But it is already more than 10 years behind schedule and hugely over budget, at about 20 billion euros and additional costs are to be expected. Flamanville is an important example in demonstrating just how much uncertainty can cost. Future reactors would likely be cheaper, benefitting from economies of scale. It might work in theory, but it should also work in practice. Building new reactors is quite the gamble.

It is vital for our future to also think about the sectors that do not yet exist but that could become future economic pillars in both France and Germany.

Thomas Pellerin-Carlin

Would it be more economically advantageous to install more wind and solar power in France instead? 

In comparison to new nuclear reactors, France can clearly afford the costs of solar and wind farms, which usually come with few surprises. They can also be built faster. There generally is a consensus among experts, even pro-nuclear, that the massive development of renewable energies in France is absolutely necessary. Most of the increase in decarbonised energy production will have to come from renewable energy sources, whether new nuclear capacity is built or not.

But what if the ‘nuclear gamble’ fails to materialise? Could the example of Siemens be imitated in France?

In theory, yes. One French company, Engie, has already virtually abandoned its nuclear activities – now only operating nuclear plants in Belgium. The company has moved its focus to renewable energy and producing green hydrogen from renewable electricity. On the other hand, for a company like EDF, abandoning nuclear power would make much less sense. It is a leader in this sector and it figures that EDF’s directors therefore would want to continue to invest in the technology. The question that remains for EDF is to what extent the development of new nuclear power will or will not be central to its activities.

For France, there is a considerable economic potential in renewables, which could become a leader in the nascent floating wind energy sector. Or in solar thermal energy – which is the use of solar energy to produce heat instead of electricity. Industrial processes often need a lot of heat energy, especially in the agri-food industry, which is highly advanced in France and still largely depends on fossil fuels. Many large agri-food business could run their operations, at least partially, on thermal solar power. Unfortunately, for the moment, this is not a political priority in France. But it is a political priority for the EU.

What are the prospects for bilateral cooperation between Berlin and Paris in the energy sector despite differences over nuclear power? 

Continued Franco-German cooperation is crucial for both countries, both at political and administrative-technical levels. France was able to avoid power cuts last year thanks to cooperation with Germany. Conversely, Germany was propped up by France during cuts to its gas supply in the winter of 2022.  Cooperation extends beyond government, too: French and Germany companies commonly supply or are supplied by companies from across the Rhine River. The French and German economies are structurally intertwined, and this is a result not of political directives but of the market economy. Whenever there is political intervention in economic questions, it is usually resolved at EU level rather than through bilateral cooperation. While it is in both parties’ interest to cooperate, this must not take place in isolation from the other 25 member states.

French public figures have repeatedly accussed Germany of undermining French nuclear power. What basis do these accusations have, and what are their consequences in your opinion?

Clearly, some parts of the French debate are turning to conspiracy theory. I regularly read things that are quite obviously absurd. Nevertheless, it is true that the German federal government defends its particular vision of its national interests. Yet, of course the French government does exactly the same. For me, the main issue is to help governments understand what the national interest really is. Sometimes, both in France and in Germany, we have politicians who confuse the national interest with the short-term interest of their party or a large national company. Decision-makers must broaden their perspective and think beyond the companies represented by the lobbyists they meet. It is vital for our future to also think about the sectors that do not yet exist but that could become future economic pillars in both France and Germany.

The EU nuclear alliance that France launched in early 2023 brings together 13 countries that seek greater reliance on nuclear energy in addition to renewables. Doesn't this initiative risk straining Franco-German relations further?

For some years now, the French government under President Emmanuel Macron has taken a very clear political line on the development of nuclear power in France. This is reflected in a desire to raise the issue in just about every possible theatre at the European level. It is part of a generalized political offensive to articulate the economic interests of the nuclear industry, and an effort to position nuclear energy at the heart of the EU. It is rather common in the way of doing politics at the EU level that a government defends its vision of the national interest and does so in cooperation with other governments by building alliances. 

Nuclear energy only comprises six percent of the final energy mix in the European Union. I would find it interesting if we dedicated no more than six percent of the EU energy debate to the issues nuclear energy. At the moment, on some topics, we seem to dedicate 60 percent of our political capital to discussing nuclear energy, to the detriment of other topics that are at least as important. I think we need to refocus the debate on the issues on which we agree. The term "unity in diversity", a sort of slogan of the European Union, would be best practice in this debate. We need strong pan-European unity to develop new industries, but the European Union is a federation of sovereign nation-states and nuclear power will remain a pillar of European diversity.

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