Viewpoint: Fessenheim closure subverts modern environmentalism

04 March 2020

Shutting down the Fessenheim nuclear power plant in eastern France will lead to additional emissions of around 10 million tonnes of CO2 per year and the loss of thousands of jobs, writes Valérie Faudon, general delegate of the French Nuclear Energy Society (SFEN).

Valérie Faudon (Image: SFEN)

The permanent closure of the plant’s first unit last month has created concerns in a region already suffering from deindustrialisation and where nearly 5000 people economically depend on the plant. Beyond the social unrest, there is unease about the appropriateness of closing a low-carbon source of production amidst the climate emergency. This is in a Europe still very dependent on coal and gas-fired power plants. The decision, which will lead to an increase in CO2 emissions, comes from an ecological vision that is now resolutely outdated.

The plan to close Fessenheim was the result of an agreement between the Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste) and the Greens (Europe Écologie Les Verts) at the end of 2011, in preparation for the presidential and legislative elections in 2012. The accident at Fukushima had occurred just a few months before, in March 2011, and the model to follow was at that time the Energiewende - the German energy turning point - which included, among other things, the closure of nuclear power plants. Nearly 10 years later, the world has changed a lot.

First, the record of the Energiewende is regarded in academic circles today as disastrous. According to a recent study by researchers from Berkeley University in the USA, the replacement of production from nuclear power plants shut down in Germany between 2011 and 2017 would have caused additional CO2 emissions of 36 million tonnes per year, and, in addition, emissions of pollutants (SO2, NOx and fine particles) that would have caused additional deaths of 1100 individuals per year.

But, above all, the priority in 2020 is the climate emergency. If CO2 emissions were stable in 2019, they must now decrease sharply to reach the objective of carbon neutrality by 2050. The director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Faith Birol, is clear that we will need all forms of low-carbon energy - nuclear and renewables. The chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Hoesung Lee, confirmed at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Conference on Climate Change and the Role of Nuclear Power, in October 2019, that the climate “needs all the help it can get”.

According to initial estimates, the closure of the Fessenheim plant will lead to additional emissions of around 10 million tonnes of CO2 per year for the electricity sector, the equivalent of emissions from a city the size of Glasgow in Scotland. The French electricity network is more and more interconnected with our neighbours, and our country exports and imports electricity dynamically all day long, based on market prices. If France's electricity is decarbonised, through the use of nuclear and renewables, then that affects our neighbours, too.

Discussing France's electricity mix in isolation no longer makes sense in 2020. The Fessenheim power station emits 6 g of CO2 / kWh, while, on the other side of the Rhine, the German electricity system emits more than 400 g of CO2 / kWh. The output of the Fessenheim plant will not be replaced by renewable energy, which is already prioritised by the grid, but rather by the production of French or foreign gas-fired power plants. It's worth noting that, as Fessenheim closes, Germany is commissioning a new coal-fired power plant, in Datteln.

Finally, concerns are growing over our security of electricity supply in the years to come. Last autumn, French electricity transmission network operator, RTE, warned there is a real risk in the winter of 2022-2023. Plant closures in France and in neighbouring countries means the loss of 'on-demand' generation that meets electricity demand in real time. France has been shutting down its fossil fuel thermal resources (coal, oil, gas) for several years now. At the same time, Germany has announced a major programme to shut down nuclear and old coal plants by 2025.

At the end of 2019, the Haut Conseil pour le Climat [France's independent climate advisory council] recommended assessing the carbon footprint of legislative acts. While the first Fessenheim reactor is being shut down, the state must set up a monitoring system to assess the impact, both climatic and social, in the coming years, of the shutdown of both reactors at Fessenheim. In general, the state must now ensure that all the provisions of the government’s Multiannual Energy Programme [presented in November 2018] are systematically subject to an assessment of their impact on the climate and on society.

Valérie Faudon

An abridged version of this article first appeared in Le Monde on 22 February.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News