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Nuclear, how can France better export its know-how?

In half-tone. This is how to summarize 2019 for French nuclear players.

The commissioning of the second Chinese EPR in Taishan has demonstrated the ability of the entire sector to continue to deliver major projects with a controlled budget. But this success must be put into perspective in light of other projects regularly called into question (Flamanville EPR, the United Kingdom and Norway, the dismantling of Fessenheim, etc.).

What if, as in sports, the key to success is training?

Between 1970 and 2000, more than 60 reactors were built in France. Since 2000, only one major project has been launched, the Flamanville EPR, which has been experiencing numerous delays. The reason for the delays? They are partly, but not only, due to a loss of know-how linked to a declining market in France and Europe. They can also be explained by the regulatory framework: in many cases following certain incidents, standards have increased during the construction of power plants, which implies upgrading operations and therefore new delays. Another element of the answer is the organization of the industry. Fragmented, it is struggling to impose itself and to design global offers that involve all the many SMEs that make up the nuclear business.

For example, the Chinese Taishan-2 EPR entered service before the Flamanville EPR. This was because it was able to benefit from the experience gained on the Taishan-1 PRT, but also because the Chinese chose not to apply new regulations during the construction of the PRT.

Nevertheless, from a technological point of view, the French nuclear industry is a pioneer. EPRs promise cheap and safe energy to large amounts of people. SMRs (Small Modular Reactor) make it possible to supply territories with a relatively small investment and to make progress in waste management. In short, our industry lacks opportunities to demonstrate its expertise.

Thus, in the absence of major projects in France, our nuclear sector must seek its sustainability abroad... or see its expertise slowly decline.

With an energy mix composed of 80% fossil fuels, India is an El Dorado. The signing of an agreement between EDF and NPCI (the Indian EDF) in 2016 confirmed the successful launch of this partnership. But since then, no significant progress has been made. As is often the case with contracts with India, patience is the key. Other promising markets are South Africa, Poland and Turkey, where, in theory, the French nuclear industry should be able to position itself. But in practice, France suffers from a weakness that is similar in other sectors: its global offer.

From now on, the States expect a packaged offer: financing, construction, maintenance, training, operation, etc., everything must be taken care of. 

South Korean Kepco has understood this well and has become a key player in major projects (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, United Arab Emirates, etc.) by offering competitive, but above all turnkey offers. EDF, Orano, Framatome, PME and ETI...it is difficult to provide such an offer when skills are fragmented or even duplicated.

But the awakening is here: on 28 January 2019 a strategic contract was signed between the major nuclear players and the many SMEs, which make up nearly 80% of the sector.

One of the objectives of this contract is to structure the responses of the various players to export markets by promoting a 100% French solution and thus maintaining national technical expertise.

Beyond this contract, the four associations that structured and promoted the sector were grouped together in the GIFEN (Groupement des industriels français de l'énergie nucléaire). The objective of this syndicate is to strengthen and solidify the visibility of the various actors and to avoid a fragmentation of initiatives... and know-how.

A declining European market, increasingly restrictive regulations that delay ongoing projects, fragmentation of know-how. Our nuclear industry is addressing these challenges by reorganizing itself and focusing on export markets to maintain its expertise. This strategy on a sector-wide scale is an encouraging sign for the 3rd largest industry in our country, which, let us not forget, is nowadays essential to the decarbonization of our electricity production.

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