A general view on nuclear power plant of Tricastin, in Pierrelatte, France. EPA-EFE/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO


French nuclear reactor authorised to operate for up to 50 years


France’s Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN – Nuclear Safety Authority) has greenlighted the extension of the Tricastin nuclear power plant lifespan by 10 years, meaning it is the first time ASN has run a reactor in France beyond 40 years.

The move indicates a shift in France’s energy strategy. The authorisation of the Tricastin power plant in the South of France to operate for up to 50 years comes as the country is looking to fulfil its need for low-carbon emitting energy. The French Government seems to be putting an emphasis on nuclear power.

This nuclear facility “is the first reactor in the French nuclear fleet on which ASN is taking a position at the end of its fourth periodic review, ie after about 40 years of operation,” the authority said in a note published on August 10.

That position opens up the possibility of prolonging the lives of 32 other 900-megawatt reactors in France. In February 2021, the ASN initiated the process for the current expansion through a decision that requires a thorough re-evaluation of each reactor, considering their individual characteristics, to be validated. Tricastin’s first reactor, operational since 1980, became the pioneer by successfully undergoing this comprehensive assessment in 2019.

ASN’s opinion “indicates that the reactor can continue to operate until the next investigation” and thus the next 10-year visit, said Yves Guannel, head of the “stress and safety assessments” office at ASN’s nuclear power plants directorate.

This extension was made possible by the work carried out by energy giant EDF as part of its Grand Carénage programme, which has been implemented since 2014 to renovate France’s nuclear fleet and raise the safety level of reactors to continue their operation well beyond 40 years.

More significant in this case is the fact that Paris has pushed the study of “prolonging the life span to 60 years and longer”, while the country will build the new generation of reactors.

Estimations are that “the great refit” of the existing nuclear reactors will cost around €66 billion. Part of the modern adaptations are resistance to higher climatic temperatures than originally planned, as France is currently in the grip of a heat wave.

In addition to extending existing nuclear reactors, France is also constructing a new large Europen Pressurised Reactor (EPR). Furthermore, the country is considering building 14 large nuclear power plants by 2050 and exploring the potential of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).

Belgium is in the process of terminating its nuclear power plants, following in the footsteps of Germany. Brussels Signal contacted Belgium’s Nuclear Forum, an organisation representing companies in the nuclear sector.

The Nuclear Forums’ spokesman Niels Vanacker said he applauded the French decision. “Taking into account the current energy and climate crisis, it’s a no-brainer to keep existing nuclear reactors operational for as long as safely possible, given that they provide CO2-free, always available energy.”

Vanacker said the safety standards imposed by ANS are comparable to those of the rest of the world and that there are international controls and regulations regarding the safety of nuclear power plants.

“It’s important to mention that the nuclear sector is one of the most secure and heavily regulated sectors in the world. Over 50 audits are conducted annually in Belgian nuclear power plants, averaging about one audit per week,” he said.

“Closing a nuclear reactor after 40 years of service is solely a political decision, not a technical one,” he added. “There is no technical reason to shut down a reactor after 40 years. Nuclear power plants have no technical end date and can be operated longer with proper maintenance and investment.”

Vanacker also highlighted the fact that France “performs much better in terms of CO2 emissions for electricity generation compared to Germany, where nuclear energy has been completely phased out despite having a high share of renewable energy sources”.

“A substantial portion of electricity in Germany is generated from fossil fuels, including coal and even more polluting brown coal.

“The difference between Germany and France is evident on Electricitymap, where you can explore the historical and real-time electricity mix of all countries: The CO2 emissions from electricity generation in Germany were consistently higher than in France throughout the year. Without exception,” he said.

Belgium was once a pioneer regarding nuclear energy but, under pressure from Green party politicians, it chose to phase out its use, prohibiting any form of new nuclear energy.

Professor of Energy Geopolitics at the Free University of Brussels Samuele Furfari told Brussels Signal that governments were “cautious” when giving the initial lifespan of reactors.

“Now, experience shows that reactors can be extended by 20 or 30 years. The United States started this and now everyone else is going to follow,” he said.

Furfari compares nuclear facilities to cars, where one changes the brakes, the clutch and the tyres but keeps the car. “In a nuclear power station it’s the same thing; there are wear-and-tear parts that have to be replaced … But there is no need to replace the reactor vessel,” he said, referring to the French decision as “common sense”.

“That’s why it’s going to become more widespread. Tricasin is just the beginning in France,” he concluded.