The Drivers behind French Commercial Nuclear Development

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France does not possess any sizable deposits of fossil fuels, and it relied mostly on imported oil to run its growing post-World War II economy. The French realized just how dependent and vulnerable their economy was to imported Middle East oil in 1956 when Egypt, after nationalizing the waterway, blocked transit through the Suez Canal, a major transit route for oil from the Middle East to Europe. The French government's fears were realized again less than two decades later, in 1973, with the effects of a global Arab oil embargo. To lessen their dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels, the French enacted an ambitious nuclear power building program that called for the construction of six reactors per year. The national rallying cry for this initiative was the slogan,"France doesn't have oil, but it has ideas."

Such an ambitious nuclear generation development project costs billions and would have emptied the French coffers unless some creative financing was utilized. Instead of raising taxes and running the risk of a taxpayer revolt, the French devised an innovative strategy to offset part of its ambitious nuclear build program. To raise funds, the French made the decision to build fuel reprocessing facilities with surplus capacity to handle their own needs as well as international demand. As a global reprocessor of nuclear waste, France soon began to reprocess waste from European nations such as Germany and for countries as far away as Japan.While this waste reprocessing strategy resulted in relatively minor protests in France in the 1970s and 1980s, these protests failed to change the government's approach.

The French nuclear program is based on American technology. After experimenting with gas-cooled reactors in the 1960s, the French gave up and purchased American pressurized water reactors designed by Westing-house. By purchasing just one type of reactor, the French were able to build their plants more economically than nuclear facilities built in the United States. Moreover, management of safety was much easier since the

The French realized just how dependent and vulnerable their economy was to imported Middle East oil in 1956 when Egypt blocked the Suez Canal.

lessons learned from an incident at one nuclear facility could be quickly implemented by managers at another identical French reactor. This centralized planning and management have been critical to the success of France's nuclear industry, enabling it to operate safely and efficiently.

The U.S. nuclear industry has traditionally lacked this standardized approach championed by the French and instead utilized a variety of reactor types built by a number of competing, cost-conscious firms. This lack of standardization hindered efficient U.S. reactor training and negatively affected reactor performance. Today, taking a cue from the French, the U.S. nuclear industry is achieving a greater degree of standardization through the consolidation of operators and more thorough government regulations. The French, through their centrally controlled, standardized approach, have achieved a high degree of success with their nuclear industry. This has become a point of national pride, since it enables the nation to manage its dependence on imported fossil fuels.

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