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The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing


  • Grubler, Arnulf


The paper reviews the history and the economics of the French PWR program, which is arguably the most successful nuclear-scale up experience in an industrialized country. Key to this success was a unique institutional framework that allowed for centralized decision making, a high degree of standardization, and regulatory stability, epitomized by comparatively short reactor construction times. Drawing on largely unknown public records, the paper reveals for the first time both absolute as well as yearly and specific reactor costs and their evolution over time. Its most significant finding is that even this most successful nuclear scale-up was characterized by a substantial escalation of real-term construction costs. Conversely, operating costs have remained remarkably flat, despite lowered load factors resulting from the need for load modulation in a system where base-load nuclear power plants supply three quarters of electricity. The French nuclear case illustrates the perils of the assumption of robust learning effects resulting in lowered costs over time in the scale-up of large-scale, complex new energy supply technologies. The uncertainties in anticipated learning effects of new technologies might be much larger that often assumed, including also cases of "negative learning" in which specific costs increase rather than decrease with accumulated experience.

Suggested Citation

  • Grubler, Arnulf, 2010. "The costs of the French nuclear scale-up: A case of negative learning by doing," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 38(9), pages 5174-5188, September.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:enepol:v:38:y:2010:i:9:p:5174-5188

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. MacKerron, Gordon, 1992. "Nuclear costs : Why do they keep rising?," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 20(7), pages 641-652, July.
    2. Argote, L. & Epple, D., 1990. "Learning Curves In Manufacturing," GSIA Working Papers 89-90-02, Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business.
    3. Dominique Finon & Carine Staropoli, 2001. "Institutional And Technological Co-Evolution In The French Electronuclear Industry," Industry and Innovation, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 8(2), pages 179-199.
    4. Jasper, James M., 1992. "Gods, Titans and mortals : Patterns of state involvement in nuclear development," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 20(7), pages 653-659, July.
    5. Koomey, Jonathan & Hultman, Nathan E., 2007. "A reactor-level analysis of busbar costs for US nuclear plants, 1970-2005," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 35(11), pages 5630-5642, November.
    6. Gritsevskyi, Andrii & Nakicenovi, Nebojsa, 2000. "Modeling uncertainty of induced technological change," Energy Policy, Elsevier, vol. 28(13), pages 907-921, November.
    7. McCabe, Mark J, 1996. "Principals, Agents, and the Learning Curve: The Case of Steam-Electric Power Plant Design and Construction," Journal of Industrial Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 44(4), pages 357-375, December.
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