May 13, 2008
“If France can produce 80% of its electricity with nuclear power, why can’t we?” asks U.S. presidential candidate John McCain. Nuclear power is a cornerstone of Senator McCain’s plan to combat climate change, which he is unveiling this week.
McCain thinks he is asking a simple rhetorical question. As it turns out, he is not. His question is technical, with an answer that will surprise him and most Americans. Nuclear reactors cannot possibly meet 80% of America’s power needs — or those of any country whose power market dominates its region — because of limitations in nuclear technology. McCain needs to find another miracle energy solution, or abandon his vow to drastically cut back carbon dioxide emissions.
Unlike other forms of power generation, nuclear reactors are designed to run flat-out, 24/7 — they can’t crank up their output at times of high demand or ease up when demand slows. This limitation generally consigns nuclear power to meeting a power system’s minimum power needs — the amount of power needed in the dead of night, when most industry and most people are asleep, and the value of power is low. At other times of the day and night, when power demands rise and the price of power is high, society calls on the more flexible forms of generation — coal, gas, oil and hydro-electricity among them — to meet its additional higher-value needs.
If a country produces more nuclear power than it needs in the dead of night, it must export that low-value, off-peak power. This is what France does. It sells its nuclear surplus to its European Union neighbours, a market of 700 million people. That large market — more than 10 times France’s population — is able to soak up most of France’s surplus off-peak power.
The U.S. is not surrounded, as is France, by far more populous neighbours. Just the opposite: The U.S. dominates the North American market. If 80% of U.S. needs were met by nuclear reactors, as Senator McCain desires, America’s off-peak surplus would have no market, even if the power were given away. Countries highly reliant on nuclear power, in effect, are in turn reliant on having large non-nuclear-reliant countries as neighbours. If France’s neighbours had power systems dominated by nuclear power, they too would be trying to export off-peak power and France would have no one to whom it could offload its surplus power. In fact, even with the mammoth EU market to tap into, France must shut down some of its reactors some weekends because no one can use its surplus. In effect, France can’t even give the stuff away.
Not only does France export vast quantities of its low-value power (it is the EU’s biggest exporter by far), France meanwhile must import high-value peak power from its neighbours. This arrangement is so financially ruinous that France in 2006 decided to resurrect its obsolete oil-fired power stations, one of which dates back to 1968.
France’s nuclear program sprung not from business needs but from foreign policy goals. Immediately after the Second World War, France’s President, Charles de Gaulle, decided to develop nuclear weapons, to make France independent of either the U.S. or the USSR. This foreign policy goal spawned a commercial nuclear industry, but a small one — France’s nuclear plants could not compete with other forms of generation, and produced but 8% of France’s power until 1973.
Then came the OPEC oil crisis and panic. Sensing that French sovereignty was at stake, the country decided to replace oil with electricity and to generate that electricity with nuclear. By 1974, three mammoth nuclear plants were begun and by 1977, another five. Without regulatory hurdles to clear and with cut-rate financing and a host of other subsidies from Euratom, the EU’s nuclear subsidy agency, France’s power system was soon transformed. By 1979, France’s frenzied building program had nuclear power meeting 20% of France’s power generation. By 1983 the figure was about 50% and by 1990 about 75% and growing.
Despite the subsidies, the overbuilding effectively bankrupted Electricite de France (EdF), the French power company. To dispose of its overcapacity and stay afloat, EdF feverishly exported its surplus power to its neighbours, even laying a cable under the English Channel to become a major supplier to the UK. At great expense, French homes were converted to inefficient electric home heating. And EdF offered cut-rate power to keep and attract energy-intensive industries — Pechiney, the aluminum supplier, obtained power at half of EdF’s cost of production, and soon EdF was providing similar terms to Exxon Chemicals and Allied Signal.
These measures helped but not enough — in 1989, EdF ran a loss of four billion French francs, a sum its president termed “catastrophic.” The company had a 800-billion-franc debt, old reactors that faced expensive decommissioning, and unresolved waste disposal costs. To keep lower-cost competitors out of the country, France also reneged on an EU-wide agreement to open borders up to electricity competition.
France’s nuclear program, in short, is an economic disaster, and a political one too — 61% of the French public favours a phase-out of nuclear energy.
“Is France a more secure, advanced and innovative country than we are?” McCain also asked. “I need no answer to that rhetorical question. I know my country well enough to know otherwise.”
But McCain does not know France well enough to know why nuclear power’s negative record over there says nothing positive about what it can do for people over here, on this side of the Atlantic.
Burning in the dark