Excellent question, Delaney. Nuclear power is a tricky business, and France’s relationship with it is unique in the world for a couple of reasons. France has 59 nuclear power plants and these reactors provide the country with 78% of its electricity. In the 1950s and 60s the French government took an active lead in developing the country’s nuclear capability; the objective was not just nuclear power plants, but also the development of nuclear weapons (development of those technologies usually go hand in hand). Because nuclear power got its origin in France largely from government stimulus, the economics was taken out of the equation. That’s why nuclear power is so touchy in the rest of the world and especially the United States. It’s not the threat of accidents or the problems with nuclear waste, which are legitimate issues, but the main thing is money. The process of planning, permitting and constructing a nuclear power plant in the US is about a 10-year haul, once you jump through all the administrative hoops, fight local opposition groups, and convince the EPA and the NRC that you know what you’re doing. That is a colossal investment up-front that a power company has to make, without any realistic expectation of return on that investment, for a very long time. In France it isn’t like that. The power companies are at least partially supported by the state, so investors aren’t going to be looking for a quick return, and the cultural implications of nuclear power are different in France than they are anywhere else.
It’s also worth noting that France’s nuclear power plants are a little different than the rest of the world’s. For one thing, some of its plants are peaking power plants, which means they only come on-line during periods of high demand for electricity (such as late afternoon on a hot summer day). Again due to economics, this would be an impossible situation in the United States or even Britain. Because nuclear reactors are so expensive to build, it would be financial suicide for a power company to build one and then use it only for peak load generation. In France they can do it because the money is different.
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