Faced with glaring evidence of delays and cost blowouts, advocates of nuclear power invariably fall back on the same argument: France did it in the 1970s, why can’t we? An obvious riposte is that France can’t do it any more, as shown by the Flamanville fiasco. A more reasonable answer, which I put forward some years ago, is that the 1970s program depended on characteristics of the French state at the time: centralised, technocratic and with complete control of the energy sector. Those characteristics can’t be replicated today – the state doesn’t have the same power to ignore public opinion or to direct investment.
In writing this, I wasn’t aware of the details of the French experience, which make the point even more clearly. The French nuclear expansion began with the announcement of the Messmer Plan, by PM Pierre Messmer for France to go ‘all nuclear, all electric’.
Messmer announced the plan in early 1974, and construction of the first three plants started in December of that year. There was no parliamentary debate, no opportunity for public discussion and of course nothing like an environmental impact statement. It was the absence of any kind of due process, rather than super-efficient construction that accounts for the speed with which the Plan took effect. The first plants took six years to build; delays and costs increased over time.
Even so, the Plan was not delivered in full.The plan envisaged the construction of around 80 nuclear plants by 1985 and a total of 170 plants by 2000. Even so, the Plan was not delivered in full. The actual number was only 56, and the hoped for transition to an all-electric economy didn’t happen.