President Emmanuel Macron announced a major buildup of France’s huge nuclear power program on Thursday, pledging to construct up to 14 new-generation reactors and a fleet of smaller nuclear plants as the country seeks to slash planet-warming emissions and cut its reliance on foreign energy.
The announcement represented an about-face for Mr. Macron, who had previously pledged to reduce France’s reliance on nuclear power but has pivoted to burnishing an image as a pronuclear president battling climate change as he faces a tough re-election bid in April.
“What our country needs is the rebirth of France’s nuclear industry,” Mr. Macron said, speaking against the backdrop of a nuclear turbine factory in the industrial city of Belfort in eastern France as throngs of workers and political officials gathered around. “The time has come for a nuclear renaissance,” he added.
The debate over nuclear power in Europe has taken on new dimensions as leaders pledge to avert a climate catastrophe and as they grapple with a searing energy crisis that has sent prices for natural gas and electricity surging to record highs — in part because nuclear energy production has fallen.
Mr. Macron has been leading a coalition of like-minded countries in backing nuclear energy as a solution to speed up the push to net-zero emissions and energy independence. That has opened a rift with a group of nations led by Germany, which is wary of nuclear proliferation and will close its last atomic power plants this year, following a 2011 policy set by former Chancellor Angela Merkel in the wake of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan.
The French plan is aimed at cementing the country’s position as Europe’s biggest backer of atomic-power and positioning Électricité de France, or EDF, the troubled state-backed operator, to compete more aggressively against Chinese and American companies in the growing global market for nuclear energy.
With an estimated starting price of 50 billion euros ($57 billion), Mr. Macron’s blueprint consists of constructing six next-generation mammoth pressurized water reactors at existing nuclear sites around France starting in 2028, with an option to consider building up to another eight more by 2050.
Mr. Macron said France would also build a prototype small modular reactor — a new type of scaled-down modular nuclear power plant — by 2030, putting the country in competition with a growing cadre of others pushing out the technology.
France currently relies on an aging fleet of 56 nuclear reactors — the most after the United States, with 93 — to generate 70 percent of its electricity and to export energy to other countries. But France has fallen from dominance as EDF, which has grappled with a series of longstanding setbacks, now faces a full-blown crisis just as Europe is in an energy crunch.
The company warned this week that its nuclear energy output would slump to the lowest levels since the 1990s because of problems at some sites, sending European energy prices to fresh highs. The company has temporarily closed 10 reactors, down from 17 in December, for maintenance — including to fix cracks found in pipes at some plants.
The energy shortfall has left France in the awkward position this winter of having to rely more heavily on its coal-fired power stations, tap coal-generated electricity from Germany and rely on natural gas imports as prices spike amid the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
While Mr. Macron has sought to position himself as a European leader in transitioning to a carbon-free future, France’s wind and solar power capacity are not yet sufficient to make up for the shortfall in its nuclear energy output cuts.