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France Gets X Percent of its Energy from Nuclear Plants

Does France really get 78 percent of its energy from nuclear power? Well, not really. But don't ask its politicians for the answer. In fact, the truth is hard to find.

One minute of a heated political debate between two French presidential candidates sent many journalists scrambling for data.

(corrected) Nicolas Sarkozy cited 50 percent as the amount of nuclear energy in France. Segolene Royal cited 17 percent. Neither cited the more popular 78 percent figure.

Analysts spent the day searching for the truth. Le Monde wrote:

"The 17 percent cited by Mme Royal, who proposes to reduce by half the role of nuclear in the French energy mix, is actually nuclear's approximate contribution to France's final energy consumption. Should we accept Nicolas Sarkozy's 50 percent figure as close enough to nuclear's 42 percent share of primary energy consumed in France in 2005?"

The 78 percent number has been heavily quoted by nuclear energy proponents who hold up France as an example, at least for the Western world, of nuclear success. President Bush has used the figure in speeches promoting the nuclear energy industry. Publications, including this one, have routinely made the statement that France gets 78 percent of its energy from nuclear power.

Is it 78%?

Actually, no. The real number is 34 percent. No, wait, it's 59 percent... and the 17 percent and 42 percent figures aren't completely off-base, either.

Capacity, production, and consumption are not equal

France is a net energy importer, like the United States. As with the U.S., France's energy consumption exceeds production by a large margin mostly due to petroleum imports. France is the third-largest oil-consuming country in Europe, and has very little petroleum reserves. Almost all of its oil is imported, primarily from the Middle East, Norway and the United Kingdom.

Purely on the basis of electricity, France is a net energy exporter. France, the third-largest generator and consumer of electricity in all of Europe, generates more electricity than it consumes. It exports the excess to neighboring European countries. In 2003 it generated 537 terawatt-hours (TWh, or billion kilowatt-hours) and consumed 433 TWh.

Nuclear power is big in France

France accounts for more than one-sixth of the world's total nuclear-based electricity generating capacity, ranking it second in the world behind the United States. The political story behind that ranking is one I won't get into now. Here are some other interesting facts* about nuclear power in France:

  • 56 percent of France's installed generating capacity -- 63 GW out of 112 GW -- is nuclear-based. **
  • 78 percent of the electricity generated in France -- 419 TWh out of 537 TWh -- is nuclear power.
  • Consumption is 81 percent of production, and production is less than capacity, so these simple calculations do not necessarily represent nuclear's share of domestic energy consumption, although they could.

*The percentages come from the DOE's Energy Information Agency and CSL nicely summarized them.
**The difference between capacity and production can be explained by cost and carbon. The cost and waste of a nuclear plant is relatively level at any run rate. Non-nuclear power plants, being carbon emitters and more-costly fuel users, sit idle while nuclear plants run at or near capacity.

What percent of France's energy consumption comes from nuclear power?

If we bring petroleum back into the mix, we can find an Energy Information Agency consumption statistic of 37 percent nuclear in 2001. Backing out the non-petroleum consumption produces a nuclear figure of just under 60 percent.

That's just one approach to the calculation. The percentage depends on some assumptions. Because of the lower cost of nuclear power, and caps on carbon emissions, the nuclear share of energy exports is likely to be quite high. Should we nonetheless assume that France's exports are proportionally distributed among the energy sources, such that consumption percentages equal production shares? (If all exports were nuclear, then nuclear would account for about 80 percent of domestic consumption.)

During which part of the year should we measure? In certain seasons, and in certain regions, France imports electricity; are the imports 78 percent nuclear? Are all sources transmitted equally efficiently, or are line losses higher from centrally sited nuclear plants?

Whatever the figure, the typical French home or factory probably does not get 78 percent of its energy from nuclear power. Of all the electricity France produces domestically (most but not all of which is consumed domestically), 78 percent is from nuclear plants. If you prefer a much lower number, cite primary or final energy consumption, instead.

That's my opinion. What's yours? Comment below.


Actually it was Royal, who has been pushing for a nuclear phase-out as part of her platform, who quoted the 17 percent figure, not Sarkozy.

Even the greens must admit the benefits from obtaining almost 80% of your energy needs from self generated nuclear power. No more dependancy on oil, no more potential wars, no more ability to hold Asia and Europe hostage because of oil.We MUST come up with a determined replacement policy.

National Geographic (February 2009) correctly makes the distinction between generation and consumption, electricity and energy, in their short article, "France's Nuclear Family."