Nuclear Energy: Learning from the French

Nicolas Loris /

Skyrocketing gas prices and rising energy demands have policymakers considering some of the same bad policies of the 1970s. Chief among these are windfall profits taxes, setting price controls on oil and using subsidies to pick winners and losers.

The French, on the other hand, took a different approach in the 1970s—sort of. They decided turn to nuclear energy to reduced its dependence on foreign oil. By developing an energy policy that was consistent with French values and national strengths, it transformed its energy profile.

Before France became the nuclear leader it is today, most of the country’s electricity came from oil burning plants. Undoubtedly, the country felt the effects of the 1970s oil shocks when a barrel increased four-fold. Not being rich in natural resources, legislators in France turned to nuclear energy. As a result,

“Over the next 15 years France installed 56 nuclear reactors, satisfying its power needs and even exporting electricity to other European countries.”

Today nuclear power provides about 80% of France’s electricity. Not only has nuclear power been critical to replacing fossil fuels as a source for electricity production, but it is also effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including the much maligned carbon dioxide.

Moreover, France has proven that nuclear waste can be safely and comprehensively managed, which is often a sticking point among nuclear power skeptics. Unlike the U.S., who banned the practice in the 1970’s, France recycles its used nuclear fuel. The result is more energy and less high-level waste. In fact,

“France’s La Hague plant has safely processed over 23,000 tones of used fuel–enough to power France for fourteen years.”

Nuclear power isn’t the answer for the United States simply because the French do it. Nor should the U.S. follow France’s centralized approach to expanding nuclear power. The important takeaway is that France used the oil spikes of the 1970s as the impetus to develop a clean, safe affordable source of power to transform its energy profile and become less dependent on oil. It then developed a practical and comprehensive strategy to assure the sustainability of is energy production sector. The U.S. is facing a similar situation today. While a new nuclear plant won’t likely come online for another seven years, more nuclear power could help the U.S. be prepared for the next energy shock.

At 10:40 a.m. tomorrow on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street,” Research Fellow Jack Spencer will discuss what can be learned from the French about energy independence.