(Bloomberg) -- The French government will help state-controlled utility Electricite de France SA develop so-called small modular nuclear reactors by 2030, betting that the technology will be exported to regions looking to accelerate their transition to cleaner fuels.
The announcement, made by President Emmanuel Macron, signals that he sees nuclear power as key to reducing global carbon emissions, alongside renewable energy. It also comes as France and several central European nations are trying to convince the European Union that atomic power, which generates toxic waste but very limited carbon dioxide, should be classified as clean energy.
“We need to look at different families of technologies,” Macron said in a speech in Paris Tuesday, during which he pledged that France will invest 1 billion euros ($1.16 billion) in small modular reactors, known as SMRs, and other technologies such as atomic waste recycling. “The first target is to have small reactors emerging in France by 2030.”
Europe is in the midst of an energy crunch, where supply shortages have pushed natural gas and power prices to record levels, disrupting markets, crimping consumers and forcing some manufacturers to shut plants.
Macron’s order means that EDF, which is struggling to complete a new model of large reactors at home, is joining companies such as NuScale Power LLC in the U.S. and China National Nuclear Corp. in the race to develop SMRs. The president has yet to approve EDF’s request to begin constructing six new large-scale reactors in France to replace some of its 56 aging atomic plants.
France’s EELV political party, which campaigns on environmental issues, says SMRs are a distraction from the need to build large-scale renewables and to increase energy efficiency. Yet proponents of the technology say they should be easier and faster to construct than traditional, large-scale atomic plants. Russia’s Rosatom has already installed a couple of small reactors on a ship to provide electricity in a remote part of Siberia.
EDF had called for the construction of the first SMR in France as a way to showcase the technology for export to nations that either don’t need or can’t accommodate large reactors, but would still need carbon-free generators to replace oil, coal and even gas-fired plants.
Just a handful of SMR projects are at an advanced design stage in the U.S., Russia, China and South Korea, according to Bernard Doroszczuk, the head of France’s nuclear safety authority.
While they will probably be intrinsically safer than larger reactors, because they will be less powerful and installed underground or half buried, economies of scale will be needed to make them competitive with large units, Doroszczuk said.
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