France is known as a breeding ground for culture, gastronomy and style. The country is also a world leader in another area: nuclear power.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are 56 operational nuclear power reactors in France, followed by the USA with 94.

Together, these French plants have a total output of 61,370 megawatts (MW). And when it comes to the share of nuclear power plants in France’s electricity generation, the IAEA says it was the highest in the world at 70.6% in 2019.

CNBC’s Sustainable Energy looks at the role nuclear power could play in the energy future of France and the rest of the world.

An important player

Peter Osbaldstone, a research director for the Wood Mackenzie research group, told CNBC via email that France was “by far the largest nuclear power generator in Europe”.

“The emission intensity of French electricity is lower than that of its main neighbors, as the market has only a relatively small share of the total supply of fossil fuels,” he said.

“Given that low marginal cost nuclear power plants play such a big role in the mix, French wholesale electricity prices also tend to be lower than in neighboring markets,” he added, noting that this factor also influenced end-user prices. these were also comparatively low.

Andrew Lever, director of consultancy Carbon Trust, told CNBC that France has “little reliance on fossil fuel electricity generation”.

“So from a CO2 reduction perspective, it is assuming a lower base point than other economies that are more reliant on fossil fuel production,” he added.

Macron’s mission

Last December, French President Emmanuel Macron signaled that nuclear power would continue to play an important role in the country’s energy mix.

According to a translation of his statements published by Reuters, Macron said the French nuclear industry would “remain the cornerstone of our strategic autonomy.”

Macron’s comments suggest France will continue its relationship with nuclear power in the future, but change is still under way. In fact, the government wants to reduce the share of nuclear energy in the electricity mix to 50% by 2035. So a mixed picture.

For his part, Wood Mackenzies Osbaldstone said the 50% target did not mean the technology was completely out of favor, noting that in 2019 the French government had “instructed EDF to look into the possibility of building six new reactors in three locations “. The utility, he added, should “respond by mid-2021”.

The challenges of decarbonization

The International Energy Agency notes that “nuclear energy has historically been one of the largest contributors to carbon-free electricity in the world” and that it “has significant potential to help decarbonise the energy sector”.

It should be noted, however, that while the IEA claims to produce carbon-free electricity, many consider nuclear power to be a non-renewable source. This is because they argue that uranium, the critical metal for generating nuclear power, will eventually run out.

The Carbon Trust Lever told CNBC that for any economy, the investments required to decarbonize energy supplies are “massive”.

And while the cost of renewable technologies such as solar photovoltaics and onshore and offshore wind “dropped significantly”, the same could not be said for “new nuclear power plants” that “did not consistently reduce costs”.

“From a new build perspective, there is a risk of delays in construction and cost management, which in turn pose risks to transition costs and ultimately energy costs for consumers,” said Lever.

“In addition, potentially high decommissioning and disposal costs mean a significant future risk that nuclear power plants will become a relatively expensive and unsustainable technology compared to renewable alternatives.”

France is expected to have a close relationship with nuclear energy in the future, but its neighbor Germany is taking a different path.

In response to the Fukushima disaster in 2011, when a powerful earthquake and tsunami caused the collapse of Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government developed plans to shut down the country’s nuclear power plants by the end of 2022.

Just last week, Reuters reported that Germany had agreed to pay four companies – Vattenfall, RWE, E.ON and EnBW – total compensation of almost 2.6 billion euros for the early closure of their nuclear power plants.

Criticism and concerns

Macron seems to be banking on nuclear power, but it goes without saying that not everyone prefers the technology.

Critics are Greenpeace. “Nuclear power is being touted as the solution to our energy problems, but in reality it is complex and extremely expensive to build,” says the environmental organization’s website.

“It also creates large amounts of hazardous waste,” he adds. “Renewable energies are cheaper and can be installed quickly. Together with the battery storage, they can generate the electricity we need and reduce our emissions.”

The global picture

As governments around the world seek to move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, the debate about the role of nuclear energy in the planet’s energy mix continues.

Just last month, Bill Gates, co-founder and billionaire of Microsoft, Andrew Ross Sorkin of CNBC said that nuclear power was “absolutely” politically acceptable again. Gates is also the founder and chairman of TerraPower, a company focused on nuclear innovation.

Will the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies without nuclear power then be possible?

“Any low-carbon source like nuclear can of course play a role in the energy transition,” said Wood Mackenzie’s Osbaldstone, before outlining some of the challenges ahead.

“Although the cost of building new nuclear power plants is high, the technology requires strong political support and regulatory frameworks in host countries,” he added, explaining that generators “are typically large and relatively inflexible to operate – these features reduce those Number of possible uses for nuclear facilities. “

New technologies, including small modular reactors, or SMRs, “could help address these shortcomings and potentially open up a bigger role for the source. However, SMRs are very much on the drawing board right now.”