France's nuclear power reactors provide 78 percent of the nation's electricity, far more than the world average of about 16 percent. Begun just after World War II to help jumpstart the French industrial recovery and provide for national defense, reactor construction took off after the oil embargo of 1973. Almost all of the country's 59 active reactors were built in the two decades between 1974 and 1994, driven by the goal of energy security.
Today, along with concern about energy independence, those calling for a new generation of nuclear reactors in France by the middle of this century also cite concern about climate change. Nuclear fission produces no climate-warming carbon dioxide. Combined with hydroelectric plants, nuclear power ensures that the country draws less than 10 percent of its electric-generating power from climate-warming sources. Partly due to the extensive use of these low-emission electric power sources, French output of carbon dioxide per capita is lower than other major western European countries and about one-third the level generated in the United States.
In addition to its leading role in producing electricity from traditional nuclear fission, France is also among a handful of countries at the forefront of research into nuclear fusion. A multinational research collaborative consisting of fusion scientists from Europe, Asia, and North America has agreed upon a site in Provence to build an experimental fusion reactor. This location is less than a hundred miles (160 kilometers) from the site of France's first fission reactor, built in the 1950s. While fission reactors produce energy by splitting nuclei, the fusion reactor is designed to generate energy by combining nuclei in a process similar to what occurs in the sun. If successful, the reactor will generate 500 megawatts of energy in short bursts. These short bursts are not consistent enough to supply energy to a power grid, but the hope is that the reactor will provide a bridge between smaller fusion experiments and future commercial power-generating reactors.