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France’s Macron Bets on Nuclear Power to Fight Climate Change


PARIS—French President Emmanuel Macron announced a plan to build six new nuclear reactors, betting on a technology that produces electricity with almost zero greenhouse gas emissions but faces questions about the high cost of new projects.

As part of the plan, Electricite de France SA, the country’s state-controlled power company, reached a deal to buy part of the nuclear steam turbine business of General Electric Co., including several factories in France. The two sides didn’t disclose a price.

The Macron government is making nuclear energy the cornerstone of the country’s response to climate change. He is also trying to turn the tide on a decadeslong slide in public support for the nuclear industry across the West.

Thursday’s announcement is among the world’s most ambitious reactor construction plans since the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, dealt a blow to efforts to build new reactors world-wide. In addition to the six reactors, Mr. Macron said the government would study the construction of another eight reactors in France and launch a sweeping plan to bolster the country’s nuclear construction industry. He set a target date of 2035 for the first of the new reactors to come online.

“We are now convinced, and I think that it’s scientifically established, that if we want to succeed in the climate transition, the energy sovereignty of our country, and industrial production, we have to make this choice,” Mr. Macron told workers Thursday at a GE factory in Belfort, a town near the Swiss border.

Mr. Macron is attempting to counter opponents of nuclear energy who have argued the technology isn’t safe and is too costly to be part of the solution to the climate crisis. Across the Rhine, Germany is in the process of shutting down all its nuclear reactors. Belgium has said it would do the same. In the U.S., utilities are also shutting down reactors.

France already relies on nuclear power to generate more than 70% of its electricity. But the average age of its fleet of reactors is 37 years old, putting pressure on authorities to bring a new generation on to the market in the coming years.

French President Emmanuel Macron is attempting to counter opponents of nuclear energy who have argued the technology isn’t safe and is too costly.



Photo:

Attila Volgyi/Zuma Press

France’s nuclear industry has struggled mightily in recent years to build new reactors. EDF projects in Finland, France and the U.K. are years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget. Executives and officials say France’s industry has lost much of its expertise in the nuclear construction slump following the Fukushima accident.

“There was a moment when we stopped producing,” Mr. Macron said, “and that rupture really weakened the industry.”

Industry executives and officials say another problem has been the complexity of coordinating activities with external suppliers such as GE. Officials hope that bringing some of them in-house will help avoid those problems in the future.

GE bought the nuclear turbine business from French company Alstom SA in 2015 for €9.7 billion—or, $11.1 billion—a deal that Mr. Macron himself helped broker when he was an aide to former President François Hollande. The division has since suffered as electricity utilities around the world slashed their investments in nuclear energy and instead invested heavily in renewable technologies such as wind and solar power.

GE last year proposed to lay off some 200 workers from the division. That posed a problem for Mr. Macron as he is gearing up to run for re-election in April.

Money is a sticking point in climate-change negotiations around the world. As economists warn that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will cost many more trillions than anticipated, WSJ looks at how the funds could be spent, and who would pay. Illustration: Preston Jessee/WSJ

Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com

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