The French nuclear complex

The all too easy alliance between the civil and military sectors

From the Swiss Energy Foundation sans nucléaire militaire, pas de nucléaire civile (“and without the military nuclear sector, no civilian nuclear sector”). These were the words of French head of state, Emmanuel Macron, during his visit at the end of the year to Le Creusot, a hotspot of the French nuclear industry. Indeed, the civil and military uses of nuclear energy were, are, and will remain, inextricably linked. This is exemplified by the French reactor research project NUWARD. 

The year 2020 ended with a declaration of love from Emmanuel Macron to the French nuclear industry: “Our energy and ecological future depends on nuclear energy”. He added: “Our economic and industrial future depends on nuclear energy. ” Macron addressed these words in a well-received speech delivered at Le Creusot, Burgundy, the very heart of the nuclear industry. The industrial town of Le Creusot is an important production site for components for nuclear power plants as well as for nuclear weapons systems for military use.

The nuclear industry in crisis

However, the last few years have not been a time of joy for the French nuclear industry, but rather a time of crisis. To stay with Le Creusot: The reactor forge facility there, which among other things manufactures the safety-relevant components for nuclear power plants, drew attention to itself in 2016 with a series of irregularities: it emerged that, for years, there had been systematic forgeries. Faulty forged parts were produced. Instead of discarding the rejects, reports were falsified and quality assurance undermined. France’s new-build project, the Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR), was also affected. The former showcase project sank steadily into a billion-dollar grave.

France is literally littered with nuclear installations. There is nowhere to run to. (Image: by Sting and Roulex_45 and Domaina and Calvin411/WikimediaCommons)

Along with the Le Creusot scandal, numerous other miscalculations and breakdowns cast a bad light on the French nuclear industry. The construction of the new EPR in Flamanville, as well as other construction projects abroad, made headlines with years of delays and cost explosions. The builder is the French quasi-state nuclear giant EDF. It did not want to bear the cost debacle alone, but also pointed the finger at EPR nuclear giant Areva. However, since 2018, Areva has ceased to exist. 

To prevent bankruptcy, the state has virtually ransomed Areva by means of subsidies. The group was split into the state-owned company New Areva (now “Orano”), responsible for the fuel cycle business, and the reactor construction division Areva NP (now “Framatome”), which also includes the Le Creusot forge. Meanwhile, EDF, 80% of which is state-owned, is struggling with enormous debts —some 41 billion euros at the end of 2019, according to the French Ministry of Economy.

Nuclear DNA – French identity

So the task at hand is to shore up the once-radiant sector in crisis. And Macron’s assurances to Framatome and Co. came at the just right time. On the one hand, there are economic interests, as just explained with the problem child EDF, on the other hand, there is also the French identity and military capacity, founded on France’s nuclear power status. Since the post-war period, France’s self-image has been based to a large extent on the nuclear sector. In Le Creusot, Macron not only praised those present, he also announced the construction of a new aircraft carrier —nuclear-powered, of course.

The NUWARD project: an exemplary case

Among those present at Le Creusot, in addition to Framatome, were managers from EDF, Orano and the Naval Group defense contractor. All of the players are a hybrid of government and private funding, civilian and military exploitation interests. And with the exception of Orano, they are all involved in the new French Small Modular Reactor (SMR) project called NUWARD. The nuclear industry is pinning its hopes on “small modular reactors”.

The project for the French variant NUWARD started about ten years ago, when the contractors EDF, Naval Group (then DCNS), the state nuclear and energy research center CEA (Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives) and the then Areva were commissioned with initial feasibility studies. TechnicAtome (formerly Areva TA), a specialist in marine nuclear propulsion systems, was also brought in for the pre-conceptual design. Finally, in September 2019, the partners presented their collaborative NUWARD project at the General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.

The parties involved emphasize the benefits of NUWARD as an export commodity in the global energy market: it is necessary to meet the increasing demand for energy in the context of rising population and climate policy challenges. To wit: Nuclear energy is again praised as a (supposedly) climate-friendly solution. The small NUWARD with a capacity of about 340 MW is intended as a complement to the EPR with a capacity of about 1700 MW. 

But civilian applications are hardly ever the only ones. The new aircraft carrier, which is to replace the retired “de Gaulle” from 2038, will be nuclear-powered. The experts responsible for this are TechnicAtome and Naval Group.  The new generation of French submarines, currently being developed under the so-called Barracuda program with the same stakeholders, also relies on nuclear propulsion. The suspicion is that TechnicAtome and Naval Group’s interests in NUWARD are aligned on this. According to ASAF, the French Army’s support association, the latter enjoys the opportunity to acquire knowledge that can later be applied in the military field.

The French military nuclear sector is inextricably linked to its nuclear power program. (PhotoCherbourg – the French nuclear submarine Le Redoutable. WikimediaCommons)

From research to armament leader

A deeper look at the project partners involved and their activities shows that the mixture of civil-military engagement is by no means new. For example, the defense industry group Naval Group, the CEA and TechnicAtome are involved in the Barracuda project mentioned above. Naval Group itself, which calls itself the “European leader in naval defense”, is majority-owned by the French government and one-third by the defense contractor Thales Group (which in turn is about one-third owned by the government). In addition to its largely military projects, the group is also active in the civilian sector, as in the case of the EPR4 or through offshore wind energy projects.

Naval Group, meanwhile, is a 20% shareholder in TechnicAtome, whose core business is nuclear submarine propulsion. In addition, the corporation pursues civil nuclear activities. For example, it was responsible for safety systems at Hinkley Point (UK) at the EPR. TechnicAtome was spun off in the 1970s from the state research institute CEA, which remains a shareholder today, along with the state and EDF (itself 85% state-owned). 

The CEA can be seen as a symbol of the interdependence of the military-civilian nuclear establishment. CEA, from the French acronym for Atomic Energy Commission, was founded after World War II and oversees all French nuclear research, both military and civilian. To this day, the research institution is wholly owned by the government. Of note are the unique privileges the CEA enjoys as a public agency: it is accountable for its decisions solely to the French president and is not subject to the same financial controls as other government agencies.

France Nucléaire – Quo vadis?

For the French head of state, abolishing the civil-military “double dimension” makes no sense at all. Rather, it illustrates the coherence between strategic autonomy and energy independence. And this is now being proudly presented in public again, as in Le Creusot.

It is therefore not only worthwhile for the French state to support the struggling civilian nuclear industry, but it seems almost imperative. It does so not only through share packages (see Areva). In addition, Macron is lobbying Brussels to give nuclear energy more prominence in the EU’s climate strategy, with the hope of receiving money from the Green New Deal pots. This would also help the enforcement of the planned national subsidies vis-à-vis the EU. 

State aid en masse is thus intended to save civil nuclear power in France, because the French presidential palace cannot afford to — and will not — do away with the civilian part. As Macron revealed in his closing homage to nuclear power at Le Creusot: “Our strategic future, notre status de grande puissance, depends on nuclear energy”. 

The original article in German, can be found here on the Swiss Energy Foundation (SES) website in its Focus France section. We are grateful to the SES for this translation.

Headline photo of French President Macron by LEWEB 2014/Creative Commons.

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