PARIS (Reuters) - French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron may delay plans to reduce the share of nuclear power in the French power mix and is considering a UK-style subsidy mechanism to build new nuclear reactors, a source close to the Macron campaign team said.
Relaxing the deadline for cutting back the reliance on nuclear would be highly beneficial for state-owned EDF, already struggling with high debt, which otherwise could be forced to close more than a dozen of its 58 reactors.
A new subsidy mechanism for new nuclear would also allow the utility to build new reactors in its home market in coming decades, and could be a controversial subject in an election campaign where energy issues have been overshadowed by globalisation and immigration.
Macron's campaign platform specifies that he would respect the outgoing socialist government's target to reduce the share of nuclear in French power production to 50 percent by 2025 from about three quarters today. Industry specialists say this would be a difficult and costly process.
The source - who declined to be identified as he is not an official spokesman for the campaign - said that a future Macron government would make sure that a reduction of the share of nuclear in the mix would not jeopardise security of power supply and would not lead to increased CO2 emissions.
"The reduction to 50 percent is a firm objective. What could change, depending on the resources invested, is the date," the source said in an interview on Wednesday.
He added that the 2025 date was "not cast in stone" and that Macron would be "pragmatic" about how and when France would cut the share of atomic energy. But he added that it was essential for the country to reduce its reliance on one single energy source for reasons of security of supply.
He declined to say whether Macron would back EDF's request to extend the lifespan of its ageing nuclear reactors beyond 40 years, saying the centrist candidate would wait for nuclear regulator ASN's recommendation on the issue, which is expected by the end of 2018 or 2019.
He said that if France needed to build new reactors to replace existing ones, it would have to consider new support systems because at current market prices no investor would put money into nuclear. The new scheme could be similar to the UK's 'Contract for Difference' (CfD) scheme.
"We are thinking strongly about something that resembles what the British have done," the source said.
He said there were no plans to ask EU approval for a support mechanism to upgrade existing nuclear plants, but that a CfD-like scheme could work for new plants.
"The Contract for Difference has already been accepted by the European Commission, so therefore this mechanism does not pose a problem from a legal point of view," he said. It was too soon to go into detail about how a CfD-like mechanism would be applied in France, he said, but it could closely model the UK contract, under which a power supplier is assured a fixed price for its power.
For its 18 billion pound (21 billion euros) Hinkley Point project, EDF has signed a CfD with Britain under which it can sell power at 92.5 pounds (109.5 euros) per megawatt hour for 35 years. If the market price is above that level, EDF refunds the difference, if it is below that level it receives a top-up.
The source said Macron supports the UK project and that it was crucial for maintaining the French nuclear industry's skill base.
(1 euro = 0.8448 pounds)
Reporting by Geert De Clercq and Benjamin Mallet. Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Susan Thomas