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Marcel Boiteux: Builder of the World's Greatest Nuclear Fleet

Mark Nelson

Thursday, May 9, 2024

00:00:00:03 - 00:00:33:05

Mark Nelson

Marcel Boiteux is to me the highest example of a engineer for the people. He delivered. An example a living example of an energy system that is low cost, environmentally sustainable and beautiful. And it's owned by the public of the nation or whom he built. And he did it in order to see through a vision. I mean, it wasn't he was an economist by training, and he thought that this was the correct way forward economically.


00:00:33:09 - 00:00:52:12

Mark Nelson

But in the end, almost anything like that can be negotiated. He had a vision of France where electricity was abundant, where it was as cheap as it should be, but no cheaper. And we'll get into that. And that human flourishing was after that left to the people.


00:00:52:14 - 00:01:14:01

Chris Keefer

Welcome back to decouple. Today I'm joined by returning guest fan favorite Chris Keefer for a long awaited episode. Mark, this is our third take. and I think this is because we are going to be touching on the life and work of a hero of yours. And, you know, you've really wanted to do this, man justice. the man of the hour of today's hour.


00:01:14:03 - 00:01:35:10

Chris Keefer

Mr. Marcel Boiteux, who is a architect of the French nuclear program. and a real living buff. Recently passed legend. made it past 100 years. I think the anniversary of his birth. His birthday is coming up later this week. We'll hopefully get the episode out on or around that day. Mark, great to have you back.


00:01:35:11 - 00:01:40:08

Chris Keefer

Just, just very briefly. what do you love about Marcel Boiteux?


00:01:40:10 - 00:02:18:16

Mark Nelson

Marcel Boiteux is to me, the highest example of a engineer for the people. And that's a weird thing to say because one, he wasn't an engineer by training. and and two, he was, he's not even that famous in France, ironically. But the reason why I think he's greatest is because he delivered an example, a living example of an energy system that is low cost, environmentally sustainable and and beautiful.


00:02:18:16 - 00:02:45:23

Mark Nelson

And it's owned by the public of the nation for whom he built. And he did it in order to see through a vision. I mean, he wasn't he was an economist by training. And he thought that this was the correct way forward economically. But in the end, almost anything like that can be negotiated. He had a vision of France where electricity was abundant, where it was as cheap as it should be, but no cheaper.


00:02:45:23 - 00:02:52:18

Mark Nelson

And we'll get into that. And that human flourishing was after that left to the people.


00:02:52:19 - 00:03:27:10

Chris Keefer

Beautiful. So, Mark, we're going to, I think tie this into a broader narrative. as we saw in the, recent energy war and very real war in Ukraine. Europe was plunged almost into darkness, but certainly into, and new era, which is one of rapid deindustrialization. and it was an era in which France truly should have shone, as, natural gas flows were interrupted to Europe, the French nuclear fleet, was not nowhere to be found, but I think it was operating close to a 50%, capacity.


00:03:27:12 - 00:03:52:11

Chris Keefer

in terms of its installed generation to what it was putting out. so, you know, today's story, I think is going to be interesting. and it's going to be as interesting in terms of understanding, you know, the personalities, but also the era that produced these personalities postwar France's kind of postwar reconstruction. the building out of the infrastructure that is underpinned a lot of the prosperity of the nation.


00:03:52:13 - 00:04:11:17

Chris Keefer

and then a kind of rot that came in and I think, you know, with nuclear, often we are awestruck by the, the engineering, the technology, the shiny objects, the massive, you know, assemblage of concrete and steel. But, often the human story is left out. We're going to tell that human story as it, as it pertains to, Mr. Botha.


00:04:11:19 - 00:04:31:04

Chris Keefer

but also, I think touching a little bit on, you know, the rot that has has come into nuclear. We've we've addressed that in another episode, but maybe the human story of that and sort of the cultural moment of the 60s, 1968, maybe in particular, and how that led to, a new generation, which in some ways sabotage the, the legacy that, Marcel has left.


00:04:31:04 - 00:04:49:13

Chris Keefer

And we're entering now into what seems to be a new epoch. one is reminded of, of the phrase, hard times make hard men. Hard men make soft time. Soft and soft times make soft men, and soft men make hard times. it seems like we're going to be talking about a full revolution. of that, we'll.


00:04:49:13 - 00:05:11:16

Chris Keefer

So, Mark, I'm going to try and sort of, you know, interrupt some of your longest flows here and keep this pretty conversational. but you did a great job there answering, the first question briefly. so, yeah, let's, let's move in. We're going to be, again, part biography. but maybe before we get into that, just to set the scene again, just lay out for us, the current state of, the nuclear sector in France.


00:05:11:18 - 00:05:27:06

Chris Keefer

You were showing me and some of our pre chats, the the production profiles, I think of, Beaver Valley nuclear unit, for which much of the French fleet is based upon and just how incredibly different. the production is from those units. How well is the French fleets operating?


00:05:27:07 - 00:05:51:15

Mark Nelson

Well, in 2022, as you said, when you're up, all of Europe needed the French nuclear system the most. It was it was barely in action. We're talking a 51% capacity factor for the year from the remainder of the fleet. After the French intentionally shut down and destroyed one of their finest two unit plants that had already been prepared for long life.


00:05:51:17 - 00:06:17:13

Mark Nelson

So if you count those, it would have been under 50%. But just of the plants that were online in 2022, France operated at 51%. That is up at the level of offshore wind. And any time you're having to compare nuclear to renewables in terms of capacity factor, you've really messed up. And this is a fleet which shouldn't have had any problem meeting the demands of Europe.


00:06:17:15 - 00:06:37:04

Mark Nelson

and the reasons for this are complex. There are many, but one of the biggest is that the spirit of excellence that Marcel Boiteux left EDF with, it seems to be totally broken now. EDF people are going to get really pissed and they're going to get angry. But look, in American parlance, I just got to say scoreboard.


00:06:37:09 - 00:07:04:21

Mark Nelson

You just look at how much those nuclear plants are operating and it's awful. On one hand they'll say, oh, our regulator was too harsh and shut things down. Well, EDF lost the lost the battle to make that not happen. Whatever it would have taken to fight against unjust and irresponsible abuse of the regulatory apparatus. They didn't. They couldn't or didn't or, it's just in the end.


00:07:04:23 - 00:07:33:08

Mark Nelson

Scoreboard. They were not available when it counted months the most. Here's another one. The French claim that they don't have enough market for their electricity. Well, that's a marketing problem. And you answer that with marketing better. And if they claim, oh well, we couldn't market more electricity because of all these laws limiting us that say that our competitors have to take first priority on the grid, or even though renewables are no more low carbon than we are, we have to make room for them.


00:07:33:10 - 00:07:59:01

Mark Nelson

Whatever. That's still that broken spirit, that broken spine in some ways, that EDF let small, pathetic private interests dominate that of their their mission to deliver power when it was needed most in Europe. Now, if I had been in EDF, would I do a better job? I have no idea. I don't know, maybe if I would have done a better job, I would have been cleaned clear out of EDF long before.


00:07:59:03 - 00:08:23:22

Mark Nelson

In 2017, when I met on a research trip to understand what was starting to go so wrong in France because they were, promulgating all these decrees to start stripping down their fleet and and destroy their own reactors. I did a research trip over there with, Environmental Progress, a Michael Shellenberger support. And what we discovered was for the young engineers, if you were pro-nuclear at EDF, you had to hide it.


00:08:24:00 - 00:08:45:17

Mark Nelson

You had to not tell people that you were to in to what, produce 90% of their power and 95% of the actual profits of EDF Group. You had to pretend it wasn't. You know, it, it would. It's not cool. So I'm not going to say I'm uncle by calling it cool. That's the EDF we were left with going into the energy crisis in 2021.


00:08:45:17 - 00:08:50:03

Mark Nelson

That then was used as a launchpad for invasion in early 2022.


00:08:50:05 - 00:09:25:22

Chris Keefer

So, you know, we've we've stated this kind of grand ambition of this, this program of this podcast, and hopefully we'll be able to get to discussing, you know, the change in mentality. But before we do, let's let's hearken back, to the life and times of Marcel Boiteux and the construction of EDF, into the institution that it that it's that it was and maybe, you know, the sort of peak of its, of its performance, you know, truly extraordinary accomplishment in the setting of a, severe lack of endogenous fossil fuels like coal and gas, to develop at such breakneck speed under the Messmer plan, this enormous nuclear fleet.


00:09:25:22 - 00:09:45:05

Chris Keefer

So, again, there's a human story behind this. usually I'm not a great, you know, a huge fan of the sort of great man theory of history. But, I think in this case, it'll be an entertaining, way to, to approach it. and it sounds like this. This man deserves a tribute, and certainly is not well known outside of France and perhaps not well enough known in France.


00:09:45:05 - 00:09:50:09

Chris Keefer

So, Mark, the floor is yours. tell us a little bit about Marcel. Sure.


00:09:50:11 - 00:10:25:09

Mark Nelson

So Marcel Boiteux was born May 9th, 1922. He most of my source for this episode, at least on on his biography and his decision making and thinking comes from his, as far as I can tell, only published memoir. this was that, book tension or high tension, and it was published in 1993, five years after Marcel stepped away from leadership of EDF when the nuclear bill campaign was coming to its final stages of final.


00:10:25:11 - 00:10:52:22

Mark Nelson

well built plans and, quick constructions were coming to a conclusion. And these last four large plants that would stage the future with extremely long build times stretched out forever and ever. That really sets up EDF for the entity we know and love today with its, nearly unlimited time and cost, giant plant construction. He he left really kind of near the peak, I'd say.


00:10:52:22 - 00:11:19:00

Mark Nelson

And he left it in extraordinary condition, in my opinion. So Marcel published these memoirs. Up tension. They are out of print. you can buy the PDF. it's quite expensive, but you can buy the PDF. And if you show that PDF to, EDF leaders, I haven't found a single one that's ever read it. Most of them have heard of the memoirs.


00:11:19:01 - 00:11:38:06

Mark Nelson

All of them have heard of Marcel Boiteux. But I think if we have one big goal here, it's not so much even to inspire the public. Though for me as a young man, I'm almost talking to 18 year old Mark. What I would have wanted to hear with grand ambitions, what was possible in the world, what what history can teach us.


00:11:38:08 - 00:12:04:22

Mark Nelson

No, no, what I really want to do is inspire those at EDF and those who govern. EDF is now a fully returned to state control institution. I want to inspire them to the legacy in life of the man who built what they are. So capriciously mismanaging. So here we go. Marcel Boiteux born May 9th, 1922. He had a much stronger, family on his mom's side than his dad.


00:12:04:22 - 00:12:28:09

Mark Nelson

He barely talks about his dad's side. His dad sounds like a fairly strange duck from the, with heritage from the far east of the country, near Germany, where his surname come from, comes from repeatedly, he jokes. Marcel jokes in his book about water. His surname also meaning lame or crippled. And, several times this comes up in humor.


00:12:28:09 - 00:12:52:17

Mark Nelson

When he was injured in the Italian campaign in World War Two and was worried that he would be left with a permanent limp, as somebody named lame. But, that's a that's his dad's family barely factors in his in the book, but his mom's family is a strong, persistent factor in his upbringing. His parents separated when he was young, and he was, very much under the influence of his mom's side of the family.


00:12:52:22 - 00:13:13:20

Mark Nelson

On his mom's side, there was a long line of sciences, arts, and academics. He had a long family history at the university, ended up attending genocide, called normal superior in Paris. So sort of one of the high, one of the Grand Ecole, one of the great institutions of French education. So what he attended, but not as an engineer.


00:13:13:23 - 00:13:55:11

Mark Nelson

So his grandfather on his mom's side and his grandmother were both huge personalities, and his mother was also a strong personality for he himself. He describes himself as very shy, very small, very cautious and quiet as a child who did not do well in school as a young kid. In fact, he says that much of his later success can only really be due to his mother, a school teacher, absolutely insisting and calling in favors and and persuading Marcel's teachers to continue to pass him or accept him on into harder subjects despite his poor marks and poor results and lower ones.


00:13:55:13 - 00:14:08:20

Mark Nelson

So he really attributes his academic success, which was slow in coming and sort of accelerated into university years with his mother's a forceful advocacy of his own, his own prospects.


00:14:08:22 - 00:14:14:07

Chris Keefer

Of course, those university years are interrupted by World War Two. If I'm doing my math correctly, being born in 1922.


00:14:14:07 - 00:14:43:08

Mark Nelson

And I just want to mention that Marcel gravitated towards math and science not because he felt he was better at them. He felt early on he was better at writing and better at reading, and he would, try to get out of chores that his grandparents gave him by quoting and making arguments from the Bible, which he said it really annoyed his grandmother, but that verbal skill he found wasn't as exciting to him as math, because he couldn't figure out why he was getting grades in classes.


00:14:43:08 - 00:15:08:23

Mark Nelson

So this starts a intensely analytical, and, you know, economics focused and evaluation and appraisal focused view that I think he retained throughout his whole career and really helped him when he was in some ways chief engineer of French energy, having to stand up against powerful bands of politically connected, actual engineers from the top engineering schools. So World War Two did interrupt.


00:15:09:01 - 00:15:37:01

Mark Nelson

It's kind of astonishing to read he was too young to be part of the military when when France fell. I mean, he was, 17, 18 during those frightful years. And his father was not big on using black markets. His mother wasn't able to help much because they were sort of down, downwardly mobile as a family ending up in Marseille, and he was able to eat so little that he was constantly hungry.


00:15:37:04 - 00:15:57:00

Mark Nelson

And despite his hunger, he would still go run around his house. And when preparing for entrance exams for college, he would have to run around his house because there was no heating fuel, just to get enough warmth to be able to go to bed and fall asleep. So we're talking an extremely hungry, thin, energetic young man in a fall in France.


00:15:57:02 - 00:16:35:07

Mark Nelson

So the Vichy regime, which was set up by the Nazis to govern, the remainder of France that wasn't under direct German occupation, created a regime of forced labor. And this this, created one of the most astonishing things I discovered when reading about to all these young students were forced to do labor by the Vichy government. What Marcel were to had to do, he had to work in a coal mine under barbaric conditions, basically shoveling coal and jackhammering a really worn out, nearly finished coal seam for the Nazis.


00:16:35:07 - 00:17:00:22

Mark Nelson

Yeah, that's right, Marcel Boiteux who later built the French nuclear program that came up against the political influence of Germany in its massive coal program and anti-nuclear sentiment. He cut his teeth as a laborer for a week, doing, you know, basically, core of a labor one step above slavery in coal mines, shoveling coal for the Nazi war regime.


00:17:01:00 - 00:17:44:17

Mark Nelson

And he did it under the directorship of his own government, Vichy. And boy, just I feel without being able to draw a direct parallels to the Nazi regime in modern times, I could really feel this in the last few years of France, intentionally devasted its own proper energy program at the beck and call of German officials who had managed to get sway over French thinking and French officials proudly boasting how they crippled their own government's nuclear program and nuclear position within the EU in order to meet German needs for a coal and renewable future without nuclear.


00:17:44:18 - 00:18:00:05

Mark Nelson

And the fact that he did that for a week and it just it never shows up. And like the story of where the French nuclear program comes from, in my opinion, shows a lack of curiosity and imagination on behalf of of today's French nuclear leaders.


00:18:00:07 - 00:18:04:02

Chris Keefer

Okay, so it's forced labor in a in a coal mine.


00:18:04:02 - 00:18:27:02

Mark Nelson

Didn't last long, so he escaped. He got warning that something bad was going to happen. And it was also very dangerous to work in a coal mine. So as a as a 21 year old student, he escapes, meets up with the resistance, says the last goodbye to his mother in the south of France, and shepherds five downed American pilots over the border, past the border guards into Spain.


00:18:27:07 - 00:18:54:15

Mark Nelson

Gets to the American embassy, turns over the fliers. The Americans get them to French forces and, get him to the British in Gibraltar. The Gibraltar get him to the Free French Forces in Africa. He joins up with the forces that combine under general de Gaulle, and he gets commissioned as an officer, hastily trained in the artillery corps, as somebody who could barely carry anything because he was so weak and skinny and he gets shipped off to Italy, where he wins the the War Cross for valor.


00:18:54:18 - 00:19:16:10

Mark Nelson

He claims that he didn't do anything special compared to his mates. He just was liked by his superior, which is a thing that will come back over and over and and Marcel. But he was like life. He's liked by his superior, disclaims too much responsibility for his own excellence, gets promoted by superiors who need good people and gets rewarded for his his service at that level.


00:19:16:12 - 00:19:30:05

Mark Nelson

So he gets injured in the Italian campaign sent home good surgeon, makes sure that water doesn't end up lame, is not lame. And he enters. He returns to his university where he undergoes the final years of his education.


00:19:30:07 - 00:19:31:21

Chris Keefer

And this is now, and liberated.


00:19:31:21 - 00:19:37:10

Mark Nelson

This gets us up to 1945, 1946, liberated France. He, give us a.


00:19:37:10 - 00:19:57:10

Chris Keefer

Give us a context of kind of, you know, I know you're not like a French historian, but from your understanding, what France looks like in this period, I mean, this is an era of, I mean, I guess, you know, there was plans to destroy Paris. I think Hitler ordered one of his generals to, you know, I'm not sure what kind of charges they put on the Eiffel Tower, but basically, you know, really destroy that beautiful city.


00:19:57:10 - 00:20:12:04

Chris Keefer

But it was it was spared, I think in some ways, obviously, the devastation that Eastern Europe underwent. but yeah. What what did postwar France look like, I guess from that perspective of the consciousness of the society as well as its, its kind of infrastructure took, I guess, its electricity infrastructure. Well, if.


00:20:12:04 - 00:20:42:04

Mark Nelson

You want it better to be postwar France and postwar Germany, to be sure. But, and let me let me actually add a little bit from an American perspective, and we can talk to French people and fill in that era a little better. But from an American perspective, I've been studying this period recently because some of the figures around the creation of the atomic, weapons establishment in the US, the creation of the Atomic Energy Commission and its governing decisions in the early years that some people claim put it towards this way, in this type of reactor.


00:20:42:04 - 00:21:14:09

Mark Nelson

So that way and that type of reactors, it's very interesting to me. Well, from an American diplomatic perspective, we had helped win World War Two. We felt we'd fairly divided up Europe into zones of, of, occupation and rebuilding. And then we were struck that all over Europe, from east spreading west, small bands of revolutionaries were looking to topple or overthrow the governments that remained, whether elected, pointed or grandfathered in there.


00:21:14:10 - 00:21:38:22

Mark Nelson

It suddenly was. We went from a great victory to let's. The American people are tired, want to go home. But yet Europe seems to be collapsing into governments that owed direct power, authority and allegiance to Moscow. Suddenly, Europe seemed to be falling apart, with hungry bands everywhere included in the in the, victorious countries. There was not enough food to go around.


00:21:39:04 - 00:22:15:22

Mark Nelson

There was enough humiliation to go around, there was enough embarrassment to go around. And the old Europe was left radically weaker than any of the two emerging superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States. So the way this was experienced in France was a shred of dignity retained by it being de Gaulle's forces marching into Paris, a French leader marching into Paris, liberating France for the French by the French, but yet a generation shamed by Vichy cooperation with the Nazis, reckoning with neighbors turning in Jewish French neighbors.


00:22:16:02 - 00:22:42:20

Mark Nelson

Only a few decades after the, infamous Dreyfus affair. You had a lot of stuff to deal with, and you had a young generation that beyond a shadow of a doubt, had proven themselves brave, hearty, loyal. They'd proven themselves survivors. And this was the young generation that Marcel Boiteux was a part of. One of my favorite books on this subject is by the anti-nuclear historian and scientific historian Gabrielle Hecht.


00:22:42:22 - 00:23:22:23

Mark Nelson

I've weighed this around on podcast before. This is the Radiance of France, which is intended to be an ambiguous, insult to the French nuclear program, saying that irradiation, or the radiation of France, rather than just the radiance of France. But, anyway, it's still a great first dive into this world of, French men, mostly men, attempting to restore the grandeur of France that not only had been knocked out in the opening months of the of the Western Front war, but also was starting to lose its colonies around the world and was struggling with the definition of what it meant to be a proud, post-imperial France.


00:23:23:00 - 00:23:37:07

Mark Nelson

And part of that definition found its way into rebuilding the energy sector through a nationalized utility that then was developing and finally deploying nuclear energy on a scale never before seen.


00:23:37:09 - 00:24:08:14

Chris Keefer

What were the kind of anxieties about energy security like, in France in that period? I mean, there's, you know, a number of reasons why Germany lost the war. one of them had to do with, you know, a lack of oil. This was it was fascinating learning about the degree of, horse drawn, material movement, that the Nazis did, compared to the vast fleets of, diesel trucks that the allies ended up having, but, you know, emerging more and more into the era of oil at this point, France has colonies, but was there a sense of vulnerability?


00:24:08:14 - 00:24:36:00

Chris Keefer

They were burning a lot of oil for electricity. You know, obviously the nuclear weapons program, I think was, one of the first things that was really pursued ambitiously. The Maginot Line had failed. Perhaps an atomic Maginot Line would, prevent, any kind of humiliation of France in the future. But I'm just curious in terms of the, the origins of, the pursuit of nuclear power in France, was that just the excitement around, trying to, you know, pursue the peaceful use of the atom, or was it really tied into a discourse around energy security, in that postwar period.


00:24:36:05 - 00:25:03:11

Mark Nelson

Whatever the discourse was around energy security, it wasn't enough. And France was almost totally blindsided, as was much of the world by the oil embargo of 1973. And we can jump ahead to that. But let me just say, France built a lot of fossil generation to go with their dams, and the nuclear program was slow in coming, and there was hesitation in which direction to go over many years.


00:25:03:13 - 00:25:35:06

Mark Nelson

And Marcel Boiteux himself, had to get a sort of, energy philosophy, division going. And energy philosopher under him wrote a paper in, I believe, 1940, a 1972, saying cheap oil. Until when? But even then, that was an outsider view. And anyone who would have wanted to criticize his leadership, whether from it from a anti-nuclear standpoint or just as a critique, the top cut, the tall daisy perspective could have said, oh, of course you're saying we're going to suddenly get cut off of this oil.


00:25:35:06 - 00:26:06:13

Mark Nelson

That's been totally fine for decades. As if. Yeah. So let me guess. You're going to propose. You just have to build a bunch of nuclear plants at EDF. Oh, yeah, I see, I see and also EDF had to contend Marcel Boiteux personally had to contend with extremely heavy lobbying from the nationalized coal sector. And that wasn't just for coal electricity, Chris, because electricity was seen as being a EDF thing, but it was decentralized coal burning and direct use of coal in industrial processes.


00:26:06:15 - 00:26:33:12

Mark Nelson

It was a really intense fight where Marcel felt undercut at every turn by the national coal people. Even worse. And this was, this really stung him during the embargo. And finally, his his prognostications that they had to be ready for fossil fuels and energy security becoming an issue. When that happened, EDF watched the National Coal people have been lobbying for this reason.


00:26:33:14 - 00:26:57:02

Mark Nelson

Their own coal shipments for France overseas for a profit for the national coal folks, at the expense of Edf's generating stations that were supposed to be able to count on coal. In fact, he'd been told he had to buy coal and be ready for that. And they found the coal being shipped elsewhere for trading profits from the supposedly nationally oriented coal infrastructure.


00:26:57:02 - 00:27:23:21

Mark Nelson

And now for any of your center of center right listeners, it's not going to surprise anyone that, you know, if you build a great state infrastructure to do great state engineering, whether nuclear or not, like any power structure that can be corrupted, and the fear might be that in the, more pure politically oriented structure connected with the state, you could have an even more extreme distortion from politics on what's supposed to be for the national interest.


00:27:24:02 - 00:27:50:00

Mark Nelson

I think that's one of the reasons, in my opening, rant about Marcel Boiteux and being a great state engineer, he didn't just say yes to doing things because it made EDF more power for the state more powerful. He insisted on some kind of economic cost evaluation of what was actually good for society as a whole, not just the ministry that governed him or his own organization.


00:27:50:02 - 00:28:11:19

Mark Nelson

And, obviously that's an ideal maybe we can never reach. And, I'm yet to see a big take down in Marcel Boiteux that has any economic or nuclear literacy. It's all we don't like him because he did nuclear. He represented. He conquered France with his nuclear stations. It's not it's not interesting to me that a lot of those are really dumb critiques in the long light of history, of what's evolved.


00:28:12:00 - 00:28:39:15

Mark Nelson

Even if I couldn't have said that in 1980, I can say it now quite firmly until I see a critique of Marcel overtures on the economic decision making. I just have to see the results point at the scoreboard and said he was an extraordinary man who seemed to have avoided these issues, a small minded parochialism of what I just described with the Coal Board causing and then exploiting for its profit, energy and security in France.


00:28:39:17 - 00:29:04:03

Mark Nelson

And, yeah, obviously there was energy insecurity. it was a famous quote, actually, as far as I can tell, it was amended by Sarkozy himself. We don't have I, oil, but we have ideas. We don't have oil, we don't have gas, we don't have coal, but we have ideas that was Sarkozy's, as far as we can tell, his extension of the energy insecurity, quote, to point towards why he was pro-nuclear.


00:29:04:05 - 00:29:34:06

Chris Keefer

So, there's this tension and balance here between, you know, telling the narrative arc of, of, his life and the contextualization. So I feel like we jumped ahead a little bit with the context there. But yeah, let's let's catch ourselves up now, in terms of that early postwar period and Marcel, rising to be I'm not sure if he quickly heads to being the head of EDF, but I'm super curious about, how he plays the war both in what we're going to touch and I think the war of the systems, France's decision to abandon its, indigenous reactor technology, and the Mesmer plant.


00:29:34:06 - 00:29:39:15

Chris Keefer

So. Yeah, fill us in on those, sort of 20 tumultuous years, you know, postwar and into that.


00:29:39:15 - 00:30:00:19

Mark Nelson

Until he becomes head of, head of EDF. So first of all, he was a skinny, underfed academic. He graduated with a program that he invented. He invented his own program of doing both the math and the hard sciences, plus economics. And he actually had to go over to a radically different famous institution, Sciences Po, to study economics.


00:30:00:23 - 00:30:29:04

Mark Nelson

He claims he became interested in economics because of influential friends who were obsessed by political economy. Issues of the day. Could you make a centrally managed economy be efficient? How how would you even calculate what efficiency of essentially managed looks like? So he got pulled into economics through friends who he would debate all night with during the, free and hungry days of his, occupied France education.


00:30:29:06 - 00:30:57:07

Mark Nelson

When he went back to his studies, he continued to pursue economics as one of his major disciplines. He ended up doing, being a being assigned to a professor, one of the great economics professors who had these two star students, Marcel Boiteux and another. They drew straws to see who would receive funding from the Americans to go overseas to finish their their, postgraduate work in America, that economists ended up winning the Nobel Prize.


00:30:57:12 - 00:31:22:20

Mark Nelson

But Marcel stayed back, never perfected English as he said it and rose to be had a VDS in in barely 20 years. He the professor, got his student Marcel Boiteux involved in several pricing analyzes so first the railroads were having severe profitability issues. There was this dogma of, every mile for every ton has to be priced the same.


00:31:22:20 - 00:31:53:04

Mark Nelson

That's equality. But that ignored the radical difference between heavy cargo that took up, tiny amounts of space and light cargo that took up huge amounts of space and had very delicate packaging or difficult handling per ton. And he found the railroads in disarray with a rigid, dogma that was economics. Even if people wouldn't claim it as economics that he was able to show to the railroads they had to do preferential rates for different types of shipping, or they'd leave everything to the roads.


00:31:53:07 - 00:32:22:14

Mark Nelson

In the meantime, his advisor also got him involved with calculations for the roads, for which, should the roads and rails both be monopolized, and if the roads are monopolized for trucking, how does that look? Well, so Marcel Boiteux got into one of his first political problems of his life, being found to be doing work for two organizations that were both advocating against each other for more resources and for better treatment from the government under nationalization during one of his free classes.


00:32:22:14 - 00:32:45:05

Mark Nelson

So he would teach as a professor free classes at one of the free universities of Paris. A man came up to him, and this guy turned out to be the head of electricity pricing at the newly nationalized electricity to France and said, can you come work for me? part time on figuring out how we should price electricity as a socialized entity.


00:32:45:07 - 00:32:53:17

Mark Nelson

So in 19 in the late 1940s, 1948, he entered EDF and would stay there for 30 years.


00:32:53:19 - 00:32:59:01

Chris Keefer

And how did he answer that question? How do you price, socialized electricity or nationalization?


00:32:59:01 - 00:33:24:20

Mark Nelson

So this is what's interesting about the book, Chris. There's only a few pages about how he built the nuclear program that he's so famous for. Now, there are entire chapters breaking down his exploration, not just the conclusion, but the explorations of the economics of electricity production. So one of the one of the analogies that Marcel Boiteux uses and shows in his memoirs is that of, lumber.


00:33:24:20 - 00:33:46:07

Mark Nelson

So if you have people saying, wait, this is a big social socialist electricity entity, we're households, why are we paying more than factories or the factories saying, why are I, as an existing factory located next to an already paid off power plant? Why am I having to get my rates jacked up by this new pricing scheme to pay for new power plants that I don't even need?


00:33:46:09 - 00:34:15:16

Mark Nelson

So all of these interests have to be balanced against each other. And in terms of the grid or the distribution that say, here in the US, clean energy experts have suddenly, in the last few years, discovered the grid. It's quite phenomenal. Well, what too has the lumber analogy, where the price for merely cut logs are never going to be the same price per ton of wood as they are for the planed and milled planks, or the two by fours that you find distributed all the way to your hardware store.


00:34:15:20 - 00:34:41:11

Mark Nelson

These are all wood from the same tree, but they're not the same thing. They require radically different processing. They're sold in very different volumes and scales, and they need different infrastructure along the way. So this is his one of his analogies that he developed upon having to learn about electricity in order as an economist, as a professional economist, to price it one of the issues is that there were different rates for different times of day.


00:34:41:13 - 00:34:59:08

Mark Nelson

So that's an idea that's very old. But they were set as a small premium on top of a fixed rate. And because of inflation in the war, the fixed rate had grown so much that the time of day use rates were kind of like this, almost like the same situation I found in California in 2016 when I moved to San Francisco.


00:34:59:08 - 00:35:26:12

Mark Nelson

That unfolding catastrophic electricity mismanagement, I found the same thing. There was all these things about needing to save energy as the sun was going down, but it was so expensive to run the mismanaged grid that they have that, that the actual price difference between the different times of day were very small and sure enough, just because an individual person at one end of the long, long path of distribution turns down, it doesn't guarantee that that's the savings you need.


00:35:26:12 - 00:35:56:07

Mark Nelson

Any one particular crisis day in the long run. So a lot of his text is about this issue between averages and marginal cost. Why he show he proved using theory and reams of paper and long ran sat at directors of EDF. Why you had to price had to create a theory of marginal pricing as. And what is the price that was able to fund or pay for the next unit of power plant?


00:35:56:09 - 00:36:23:16

Mark Nelson

while also taking into account the needs of developing the country. He was against subsidizing what he saw as unprofitable uses of electricity with artificially low electricity rates. This was one of my big findings that shocked me. And by the way, in defending these pricing, it's a developing the theory, pitching it to his mentors and and his, patrons within EDF, winning political battles against the various interests like entire regions.


00:36:23:16 - 00:36:51:03

Mark Nelson

That said, we should get a cheaper rate because we want to attract electricity users or, rural electrification. That said, look, we've always had this way, we've done it. We deserve to keep having it. Getting involved in EDF should be advantage but not disadvantage. He carefully managed the politics of explaining his technical vision and then delivering it and then that vision working.


00:36:51:05 - 00:37:15:08

Mark Nelson

That's what he did to show that people should keep promoting him through the ranks. Some of his promotions, by the way, after putting in case these prices, and negotiating against these titans of of interest in France, like the god of rural electrification had a beautiful life. Gilbertson is the guy's name George Gibson. He was a Titanic figure who was on the board of EDF.


00:37:15:13 - 00:37:52:09

Mark Nelson

And when Marcel's own patron, who brought him into EDF, who came to his lecture and brought him into, EDF Gabrielle Decius, when that guy got into such a severe conflict as a director of EDF, one of the eight directors of EDF with this board member, George Gilbertson, who was the god of rural electricity and rural electricity cooperatives, Gabriel D'Souza had to be forced out of EDF because the board had to have the confidence of this godfather of rural electrification, because Marcel Boiteux had been the diplomat, carefully going back and forth between his own boss and this god of rural electrification.


00:37:52:11 - 00:38:15:23

Mark Nelson

He was in the perfect position to get the tap to get the nod, to be escalated, to become the youngest director of EDF. I don't know if he was youngest ever, but in 19, in 1958, he replaced his mentor and his patron. because of that patron leaving because of the not being able to survive political battles. So what we're seeing in this theme is that he can get the theory done.


00:38:15:23 - 00:38:35:14

Mark Nelson

He can work all night. I mean, his patron, Gabriel, this is clearly brought him in as a brilliant economist, but also told him, after one confusing attempt by Marcel with to to explain his economic reasoning around the marginal pricing of electricity, to all users. Because of the lat the cost of the last unit of power plant needed.


00:38:35:16 - 00:39:06:06

Mark Nelson

Gabriel this who said this is theory, you can do this in the night time. In the daytime I must have prices. So as the theory guy who came up with the practical pricing scheme and then was part of the political back in getting cooperation from the powers that be at EDF to get it implemented, he found himself being promoted without, as far as I can tell, a lot of normal, forceful presence or charisma that would normally have led somebody to seek power, be, rapidly promoted.


00:39:06:07 - 00:39:29:06

Mark Nelson

So when he, when when Marcel was too looks inside himself for why he might have been promoted like this, he finds that because of his long family history of academics the shy, embarrassed, quiet, uncomfortable leader that he was as a young lieutenant or as a, young professor disappeared in when he was giving an academic lecture in front of a class.


00:39:29:08 - 00:40:12:05

Mark Nelson

Maybe a terrible skill much later in life, if you're trying to defend to the public and to reporters who are skeptical of lectures, why you're doing that nuclear program. But in the world that needed to be built off of some kind of rationality in the face of chaos, he was exactly this sort of young man whose iron will, in defending ideas and making them practical, was what was seen as the iron leadership that got him promoted all the way to the top, without ever having to so-called command in front of the enemy in France, that in France, what that means is being a manager face to face across a table with the powerful labor unions


00:40:12:05 - 00:40:38:07

Mark Nelson

demanding concessions, or they'll shut down your facility. So he, Marcel, was promoted all the way to the top position in 1967. Late 1967, less than a year before the May riots, he was promoted to boss of EDF without ever having commanded in front of the enemy, without ever having to have faced off to these powerful, huge, persistent labor unions that were demanding, higher wages.


00:40:38:09 - 00:40:58:23

Chris Keefer

Boy, was that coming. let's get caught up in a little bit with, France's nascent civilian nuclear power program. I'm guessing there's some overlap, as there often is in nuclear weapon states. this gas graphite system, was that partially to produce, plutonium for, for its weapons was a sort of a dual use tool. Let's let's talk a little bit about the war of the systems.


00:40:59:01 - 00:41:32:17

Mark Nelson

The most important thing from EDF perspective, not being involved in the weapons is that the the gas graphite system was entangled in arguments about French national sovereignty, French greatness, and especially a, less need to rely on anybody else for uranium enrichment. Before France got large scale, cheap commercial enrichment, the gas graphite program apparently made it possible for France to only rely on its own mines and mills and raw natural uranium.


00:41:32:19 - 00:42:10:23

Mark Nelson

The graphite helped, make the most out of the neutrons available, shall we say, without using the dreaded word neutron economy. Let's just say, the gas graphite program, which was as English as it was French. That's the funny thing. It wasn't any more French than it was English. So, it was a line of development that was being pursued by the CEA, the Commissariat, Energy and Atomic, so that their equivalent of Atomic Energy Commission, it was being pursued and it wasn't just that the technology was more French, or at least it wasn't American, like a Westinghouse pressurized water reactor license.


00:42:11:03 - 00:42:43:16

Mark Nelson

It was also that the fuel supply, before enrichment was seen as more securely French. What happened though? Several things. One, there was a split in the CEA for the pressurized water reactor versus the gas graphite reactor. This is something that's not covered well in some sources, like in that radius of France, in my opinion, where the developers of the nuclear submarine reactor and it's it's on land prototype, the prototype author.


00:42:43:18 - 00:43:07:18

Mark Nelson

Well, these folks in CEA said no, PWAs are good. We see them operating well in our subs and in, Westinghouse fleet's growing around the world. We see that EDF is growing experience with this by their participation in t haunch in Belgium. we think that this is the way to go. We just want you to expand our one megawatt prototype up to being the national model.


00:43:07:20 - 00:43:31:06

Mark Nelson

So this shows some of the brilliance and the navigation of Marcel Boiteux. He did not like the idea that he would build a national energy program around a one megawatt design, scaled up to 1000MW, when he was having to plan out where electricity comes from. At what price, in which areas, right. He did not like the idea of scaling it up.


00:43:31:11 - 00:44:02:17

Mark Nelson

And he said this one megawatt scaled up to a 1000 megawatt design would be a meal pot or, or like a millipede. Like like a bug. Like an insect with mini legs. Right. Patty. Prototype on their mill pot. I'm assured that is a hysterical pun in French, but that word ended up having a huge amount of power, persuading people to do what they never thought they wanted to do pay an American company for a license to American technology to pursue the greatness of France.


00:44:02:19 - 00:44:33:17

Mark Nelson

But that's in the end, what they did now, it wasn't just American Westinghouse license. EDF was strongly considering and wanted to consider boiling water reactors. So there was a, American French consortium to do. There was a French European consortium to do Bois's and in the, in the what happened was when the crisis arrived, which will mention that 1973 critical moment that turned that course of energy history.


00:44:33:19 - 00:44:52:16

Mark Nelson

When that moment arrived and decisions, hard decisions had to be made, the BWR crew had one last chance to put in pricing, and what they put in was about 20% above the pricing. And water said no, we're not doing it. This is our one thing. We've got to make it work.


00:44:52:18 - 00:45:10:05

Chris Keefer

And was there a sense of urgency here? I'm just trying to get the time, the timeline. So this, the the project that there, the one megawatt plant, when was this when was this built? Was this, you know, some premonitions of, oil shock coming or the need to rapidly build out a nuclear fleet?


00:45:10:09 - 00:45:29:18

Mark Nelson

no, not not really, Marcel Boiteux had to had to fight to get EDF and his ministries prepared for if cheap oil was going to cut off. There was considered time to develop the best nuclear program. Like, what's the what's the real rush? It wasn't that people didn't want to build nuclear and get funded as fast as possible for the research.


00:45:29:18 - 00:46:02:09

Mark Nelson

It's just that they wanted the decision to remain open for longer so that more ideas had a chance to play. I mean, especially ones that appeared in hindsight with great uncertainty acknowledged by everyone as being cheaper or more expensive. So if you had a with high uncertainty, a more expensive system like the gas graphite system, which was physically, according to Marcel, with to his A, his feeling was that the gas graphite program was brilliant, too complicated, too expensive.


00:46:02:11 - 00:46:30:17

Mark Nelson

That was what his feeling was. And when the wind, the patty was being, designed and built, there was no premonition of the of the oil shock. It was just, they needed French submarine reactors. The CIA got the job done and got the submarine reactors going, and they wanted that to expand into a lineage of purely French zero license dependency, pressurized water reactors for commercial electricity production.


00:46:30:19 - 00:46:56:16

Mark Nelson

What is clear during this period is that the plants had to be larger, larger, larger, larger. This was still the period where fuel cycle costs were very expensive and economies of scale were really pressing. almost every smaller company is starting to see this, where the closer you get to a finalized, detailed design, the more you see that the massive systems you need are barely any more massive.


00:46:56:16 - 00:47:24:12

Mark Nelson

They're a lot more massive. When you do detailed design, they're barely more massive. When you scale up the reactor. That's the key thing that was driving us towards larger reactors. And so it was very clear that the newest, three loop, 900 megawatt Westinghouse units were that starting point from the perspective of EDF, from the perspective of Marcel to himself, that was the starting point of profitability and electricity generation.


00:47:24:14 - 00:47:47:08

Chris Keefer

I guess. Just go a little bit more into this national psyche than, in terms of this, preoccupation with maintaining French independence, you know, independent technology, lack of, dependance on, on enriched fuel. how did Marcel deal with that? and it seems that in the end, France got a pretty good deal, going Westinghouse in terms of IP control.


00:47:47:10 - 00:48:01:13

Chris Keefer

and I think they negotiated a, minority stake for Westinghouse in and from atom eventually, really leveraging the fact that they plan to build a lot of these things, to get a good deal. So maybe walk us through that a little bit if, if Marcel was indeed involved in that.


00:48:01:15 - 00:48:21:09

Mark Nelson

Right. Well, and this is the part that's going to get me, kicked out of France, but as far as I can tell, almost anything France has done with nuclear construction has been worse the further they were away from Westinghouse. So here's what I mean by that. It's not clear to me. And I've asked my friends in South Africa to see what they can find.


00:48:21:11 - 00:48:51:06

Mark Nelson

It's not clear to me how much money the French have ever made exporting, because once they export to a country, that country doesn't really want more French exports in that country. We don't have a situation in for France like we do in say, China with Westinghouse, where China has a bad experience with Westinghouse and then keeps ordering over and over and over again in China, French design was brought in in Korea, the French design was brought in in South Africa.


00:48:51:06 - 00:49:20:13

Mark Nelson

French design in many places, the French design was brought in with different degrees of separation from Westinghouse to be true. But in almost all these cases, it was brought in as a starter for that country to develop their own technology, or that country didn't build any more reactors. So EDF in the UK, if they sell two more EPR, then that will be one of the first examples we've seen of a country saying, yes, I see how the French build.


00:49:20:13 - 00:49:57:15

Mark Nelson

I'd like two more of those please. Except for that it's been mostly countries saying we'll take the technology, but we'll manage it from here or we'll turn it into our own design. Kind of like what the French did with Westinghouse. So what the French did that was spectacular. That's never been achieved. Truly. Other places, in my opinion. I mean, I guess in Korea, I bet when they got when they got combustion engineering designs, the French were able to take a Westinghouse design, standardize around a best in class design, and execute it over and over and over with extraordinary discipline and leadership from Marcel to and his his enforcer, his enforcer that he brought in to


00:49:57:15 - 00:50:07:11

Mark Nelson

just crush goals and get this thing built with a discipline that was more, I don't know, less engineering and more like a Leslie Groves from the Manhattan Project.


00:50:07:12 - 00:50:14:20

Chris Keefer

Right, right. And I think you had a story about that bulldog, actually occupying a nuclear site, too. Yeah. So it's sort of like a marcel.


00:50:14:20 - 00:50:35:13

Mark Nelson

Would you process that? The number one thing he did to execute the nuclear program was to appoint Michel Hook. Guy, a French guy who got his PhD from, University of Iowa in the early 50s and then came back to France. I'm still trying to figure out his story. Look, there are all these legends who built France, who ought to be celebrated.


00:50:35:13 - 00:50:56:06

Mark Nelson

You ought to be studied. There ought to be bios and statues all over. There should be plaques on childhood homes in France and and where they lived and worked elsewhere. And I don't see that, which, in my opinion, we're not going to have greatness till we celebrate those who delivered the greatness we claim to be able to copy or meet, much less succeed.


00:50:56:09 - 00:51:19:17

Mark Nelson

So Michel, hug, hug. For those looking him up at home, he he knew that his mandate was to do what it took to build the plants and Marcel. But you knew that his mandate was to keep Michel alive, to keep him from hurting too many other people or organizations, and to keep him, you know, protected against his own.


00:51:19:17 - 00:51:24:05

Chris Keefer

And just to clarify, are we at the we're at the point where we're heading into sort of a crash bill.


00:51:24:06 - 00:51:51:16

Mark Nelson

Oh, absolutely. This full crash bill's hit. Yeah. Then let me just say this. The moment that the Mesmer plant came into being was not the moment it was announced in early 1974, the oil crisis hit. And a few days later, in late 1973, Marcel Boiteux was at his desk. At 9 a.m. on a Saturday, which is another thing that's not at all particularly French nowadays.


00:51:51:18 - 00:52:13:02

Mark Nelson

Marcel Boiteux was at his desk 9 a.m. on a Saturday and you got a call from the Prime Minister's office. It was the head of energy and the head of energy said to him in three hours, by noon. I need you to tell me, based on your capabilities and the industries of France, how many reactors per year from here on out can we deliver?


00:52:13:04 - 00:52:35:16

Mark Nelson

And Marcel Boiteux hangs up the phone, starts calling his subordinates again. 9 a.m. on a Saturday, and by noon gets the answer back from his big network of of, industrial partners and EDF. colleagues, he says 5 to 6 per year. That number sort of was pushed up to 7 to 6, but in the end, 5 to 6 per year.


00:52:35:17 - 00:52:57:03

Mark Nelson

What they set out to deliver, and it was considered almost incomprehensible. Just to put that in perspective, with about 50 million people, France was set to do 5 or 6 one gigawatt, approximately one gigawatt reactors per year. China is now by far the most the biggest builder of nuclear in the world, with what will soon be ten reactors per year.


00:52:57:05 - 00:53:07:23

Mark Nelson

So ten reactors per year from, for 1.3 1.4 billion people versus why, just six per year, just barely smaller size from a country of 50 million.


00:53:08:00 - 00:53:10:03

Chris Keefer

Okay, okay. Back to back to here.


00:53:10:07 - 00:53:12:12

Mark Nelson

So he points to your point, says Bulldog.


00:53:12:12 - 00:53:14:14

Chris Keefer

For those following at home and looking up the yeah.


00:53:14:15 - 00:53:49:23

Mark Nelson

He points his bulldog. And and one morning when there was starting to be public resistance against these nuclear plants going in partly it would be from the anti-nuclear movement, which I'm sure we'll touch on, but partly it was that once local areas saw the importance to the state, importance of the to the country of getting these nuclear plants in, they rightfully saw as should be their local responsibility, that they probably should try to get more out of this, out of, EDF, out of France, if their communities were going to be irrevocably changed, changed forever.


00:53:50:00 - 00:54:13:10

Mark Nelson

They should put a price on that. Well, there was an issue developing in one of these communities. I'm not sure which nuclear plant this ended up being. I'll need to look it up where Michel hug on a Sunday evening occupied the site with his men and his bulldozers, bulldozers and fencing material called Marcel Boiteux on a Monday morning saying, hey, there's going to be some trouble.


00:54:13:12 - 00:54:44:11

Mark Nelson

We've occupied the site. Sorry about that. if you need to sack me, you can sack me by. And in the end, after a huge amount of fuss, the his Michel hook was on very good terms. According to Marcel, within a short period of time with the local authorities where they may have taken it, and then paid off the local authorities with with concessions and extra, extra prizes, I don't know, because this particular history either isn't in English or isn't fully explored.


00:54:44:13 - 00:55:15:12

Mark Nelson

All of these subjects. Chris, we have an actual energy transition executed in living memory by people, some of whom are still alive. I keep finding it. So many of these people who appear in this set of memoirs and and afterwards they appear to all died like last year or in the in the few years preceding. We have a small amount of time to find the people who are still sharp, are still interested in talking and sharing their story, and helping us understand how these men executed so well.


00:55:15:15 - 00:55:47:13

Mark Nelson

And I think we should. I think we've got to do that. But after the oil shock, 1973, late 1973, the order goes in secretly, quietly to EDF. How many can you build? Don't announce anything, just get ready to rock and roll. In 1974, the plan was announced and it was no surprise to EDF. In fact, EDF had been finishing a break on the government wanting even more nuclear, whereas people from the outside see it as EDF exerting its control and forcing the government into building a lot of nuclear plants that it didn't need.


00:55:47:19 - 00:56:19:15

Mark Nelson

The big surprise to EDF, to Marcel Boiteux was the enrichment plant announced for what is now the, there's a nuclear plant in the south of France with the best enrichment facility. This is the euro dif, euro dif enrichment facility, which, by the way, is still co-owned with Iran because the Shah of Iran put up $1 billion as a loan to France in order to get that enrichment plant up and running so that France could build likewise in Iran.


00:56:19:17 - 00:56:21:03

Mark Nelson

How about that for a story?


00:56:21:05 - 00:56:22:18

Chris Keefer

That's a wild story.


00:56:22:19 - 00:56:28:01

Mark Nelson

And Iran still owns 10% of that, euro diff. So to this day unreal.


00:56:28:04 - 00:56:34:19

Chris Keefer

Unreal. What a connection. Okay. So I'm trying to sort of pick up pieces here in terms of, where.


00:56:34:19 - 00:56:58:23

Mark Nelson

We've got the great nuclear program. They knew in advance that 1977 was going to get really rough. Right? Because 1970, 1978, the first nuclear plants are coming online. All the fossil fuel units are coming to the end of their lifetime. load growth was continuing. They knew it would be rough. And sure enough, there were some power outages that led to a lot of recriminations against EDF and what was leadership.


00:56:58:23 - 00:57:06:18

Mark Nelson

But, we're well underway now. I think you wanted to get to the culture and how France managed to turn so anti-nuclear.


00:57:06:20 - 00:57:30:11

Chris Keefer

Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. So you mentioned, 1968. I was, just doing a quick little crash. I won't even give it the dignity of a deep dive, but, you know, very interesting moment. I think 20% of French or 30% of French people are under 20 at this age. So very young, population, and still a lot of unemployment, 30% of the country was making minimum wage.


00:57:30:13 - 00:57:35:14

Chris Keefer

and a student led protest started over. I think, anti-Vietnam War concerns.


00:57:35:18 - 00:57:42:18

Mark Nelson

Anti-Capitalism, Tories, ecology, capitalism. Really? That's your last sick internal student protest material.


00:57:42:21 - 00:58:00:11

Chris Keefer

But it really spreads into, you know, this massive general strike, and the labor unions getting involved. So it seems like it diverges a little bit from what we are probably more used to as North Americans. the emergence of the new last, kind of hippie counterculture, and the left really moving from the factory into the Academy.


00:58:00:17 - 00:58:18:21

Chris Keefer

it was interesting to me that there was still, you know, this this was a really unifying moment for, trade unions and students. But, yeah, let's let's chat a little bit about that because, we've explored a little bit, this, this persona, who, who, you know, built EDF, to what it is, what it became, maybe left at its heyday.


00:58:18:23 - 00:58:26:06

Chris Keefer

but certainly the rot, has, has set in to, EDF and the French nuclear fleet and interested in understanding the human story as to why that is.


00:58:26:06 - 00:58:49:19

Mark Nelson

First of all, this was this was, set of social revolutions that were rocking Marcel Boiteux when he was a year into one of the most prominent public entities in the entire country, right. He was only a year in. And at that point, he was he was, mid-forties. He was very, very young and had never commanded in front of the enemy, negotiated against directly against, labor unions.


00:58:50:00 - 00:59:26:20

Mark Nelson

And now he was into what is still, in some ways a high watermark of labor union action in the Western world. So this ended up being a formative experience for Ma somewhat, too, and probably made a lot of who we saw, developing the nuclear program and executing it. So want to actually spend way more time in his memoirs on this subject, the negotiations around wages and the, in the years after the general strike, he spends more pages on that than he does on the nuclear construction program.


00:59:27:00 - 00:59:50:21

Mark Nelson

Partly it may be because he said he would get to the nuclear construction program in later memoirs, which he never did, but he goes over the social politics behind defending on one hand his his arguments for how wages should progress at EDF and on the other hand, dealing with the hard line of the government that controlled how much money EDF could use.


00:59:50:23 - 01:00:20:17

Mark Nelson

So on one hand, he's got the workers he's needing to keep in power plants, the trade unions at his throat. And here's another one. EDF was seen rightfully among the leader in the public sector salaries. So what EDF got would then start trickling down elsewhere. That also meant it was very hard for him to negotiate with the ministries who control the EDF, because what EDF got would probably set the starting point for negotiating with everybody else.


01:00:20:18 - 01:00:55:22

Mark Nelson

So Marcel had to develop to the utmost his political skills in allowing leaders of unions to show their anger and to demand, but also slowly arrive towards concessions that had already been worked out over the phone in the preceding week. For the most militant and intense labor union. This, the CGT which had a very heavy presence in the leadership of of Communist Party folks, it was hard to get this done and they were often the linchpin or the outsiders looking in.


01:00:55:22 - 01:01:23:16

Mark Nelson

If the other labor unions agreed to a salary, a salary framework. But the CDG was the most difficult organization for him to have to negotiate, as far as I can tell, until later, when the rage of 68, the anti-nuclear worldview of the sort of the degrowth ecologists of 68 fully worked its way into the ministries controlling EDF. That started in the early 70s and started to get more and more intense in the decades after.


01:01:23:18 - 01:01:47:04

Mark Nelson

So this student, this student energy, what was it? These are remember, these students would be students who are 18 to, say 25, the ones born with no living memory of occupation or of the overthrow of the Germans and the liberation of France, but living in that world created by that from their view to. I mean, I remember this being this way when I was that age.


01:01:47:06 - 01:02:12:22

Mark Nelson

Everything is in its moment. Now's the pivotal moment for a young student that now is the most important time in history. Now is the worst it's ever been. Now is the most extreme moment where everything counts on what we do today. That was the moment in 68 that was also an anti nuclear weapons movement and anti-colonialism movement, an anti Vietnam War movement.


01:02:13:04 - 01:02:37:14

Mark Nelson

All of these things were part of one big energy. And the good thing about lumping it together and as one big one big thing is it reduced the need to actually understand anything about electricity, much less about how to produce it with nuclear reactors. I'm not trying to say that people fighting EDF or Marcel Boiteux knew nothing about nuclear, but their knowledge about nuclear was not stemmed from needing to know about it.


01:02:37:19 - 01:03:04:12

Mark Nelson

It was stemmed from wanting to fight it and I will stand on that. I don't want to insult anybody, but I will stand on that. I've. I've run into people with high knowledge of nuclear who are against it, but they tend to be of that generation that came of age after 68. And also it's clear that their knowledge is very sharp and pointy motivated, deep into the bowels of nuclear knowledge by needing to fight against it.


01:03:04:14 - 01:03:24:00

Mark Nelson

So it leaves these big gaping holes and also very little context. So these students with very little knowledge of nuclear, who might have been ones to support EDF and nationalized a social electricity provider, instead bought it on basis of the nuclear.


01:03:24:02 - 01:03:44:22

Chris Keefer

So you've kind of painted this sort of glory day, both in terms of nuclear construction. Well, maybe it's just in terms of construction, hopefully in terms of operations. you know, one of the critiques we have here in Ontario is, you know, we have these, you know, fairly long, leisurely outages. and some of the folks who who try and explain that say, well, it's because we have so much nuclear, we're 60% nuclear powered here.


01:03:45:02 - 01:04:09:11

Chris Keefer

We have surplus baseload in the spring and fall when our demand is low. We don't actually need to rush our outages. this is maybe applicable to France as well. I'm wondering if in sort of the heyday of Marcel's influence, the French fleet was running at a higher capacity factor. Was it was it working better, or, was that high degree of nuclear penetration militant unions, always, dragging French capacity factors to, to a pretty low level.


01:04:09:13 - 01:04:30:11

Chris Keefer

you know, I also know that they heat with electricity in France, largely because of this abundance of nuclear energy, and they just don't have as much demand in, in, summer. So I'm, I want to understand, you know, whether, whether they used to perform better in terms of just operations under, under different leadership or whether this was the kind of anti-nuclear rod of this new generation coming in and eventually taking up managerial positions within EDF and other institutions.


01:04:30:11 - 01:05:07:16

Mark Nelson

Well, let's just first clarify, EDF was not allowed to promote electricity over other energy sources until a, reform passed in 1970 that allowed EDF within certain boundaries to pursue electrification. So EDF at that time had very painful memories. according to Bato, of trying to promote the all electric kitchen and being brutally savaged. well, and that, of course, is funny because this push for an all electric kitchen is now mapped to the other side of the political spectrum, but yeah, those are the weird, weird patterns of history.


01:05:07:16 - 01:05:33:15

Mark Nelson

Okay, so that's one only in 1970 was EDF allowed to start pushing things like electric heating at the time, heat pumps weren't very good and Marcel Boiteux was against EDF promoting them and thought that EDF promoted electric pumps against the best interests of their customers. He was for direct electric heating, so if we want to say he was wrong about something, well, in the end electric pumps turned out to be a decent product once they got, developed.


01:05:33:15 - 01:05:56:09

Mark Nelson

Well. But in the time that he was promoting electric heating that was savaged by this new left, starting to get into things like energy savings where it was bad to heat with electricity, where the understanding that it was really good system. If you insulated a house and then had direct application two wires exactly when you needed it, ultra fast response easily tunable controllable electric heating.


01:05:56:11 - 01:06:18:21

Mark Nelson

That was a great product. Eventually, the public voted by buying and 75% of new homes. As of 1993, when his memoirs were out where electric heating and it turned only later when the full power of that ecological movement got Ahold of this issue and started messing with definitions and changing how energy was looked at in France, and trying to get that heated with gas instead of electricity.


01:06:19:00 - 01:06:27:11

Mark Nelson

That's one of the results of the ecological left getting into government later. But that would happen later in the nine and then 2000, right.


01:06:27:12 - 01:06:31:16

Chris Keefer

But these people made a rational economic choice to heat with electricity because they liked it.


01:06:31:20 - 01:06:56:18

Mark Nelson

They liked the price such from EDF that they could afford it on peak in the winter. And they liked the feeling of homes that was considered a premium thing to have electric nuclear heat. So I'll say that did not regularly work with high reliability anywhere until the mid 90s and beyond. The French had to continue to learn about how to operate, along with the rest of us.


01:06:56:20 - 01:07:29:04

Mark Nelson

It's only recently that they've forgotten, or have allowed the various weights of anti-nuclear forces to take root so thoroughly that they have a learned helplessness, and they don't seem to be able to overcome it very well. So here's another thing. Developing your market is something that should happen even more intensely if you have more nuclear. And there would have been limitations in Brussels within EDF, within the state of France, limiting that penetration, not because it was better for the price of electricity, the opposite because it promoted the cheap nuclear.


01:07:29:04 - 01:07:59:09

Mark Nelson

So there were lots of constraints put into the market share that EDF should be allowed to have in France. And it it undercut any effort to develop a huge amount of baseload electricity users. Now, the irony is that there's there's not baseload electricity consumers in the industrial world for clean technologies and for data centers that EDF should be able to just clean up, but they don't have the extra power because they spent so long claiming that they don't have the extra demand.


01:07:59:11 - 01:08:18:19

Mark Nelson

The actual shift in perspective is so hard. Almost every single EDF person I talk to, I have the same conversation where they say, oh no, no, no, you don't understand. In America, of course, you run baseload because you have, you know, so little nuclear compared to us. But in our country we don't have enough demand. And then you say, oh, what about data centers?


01:08:18:19 - 01:08:34:04

Mark Nelson

And they think, are there data centers needing work? And you think, oh, they're so addicted to complaining and excusing their terrible performance that they forgot to change it and be ready for when their excuses don't hold water anymore?


01:08:34:06 - 01:08:38:12

Chris Keefer

Could France add a lot of data center load and still meet its, its peak heating?


01:08:38:13 - 01:09:06:07

Mark Nelson

That's a statement of asking can EDF run a goddamn nuclear plant? I would hope so. I would think so. EDF so you talk about that. The €1 plan to renovate all of its existing reactors before starting to shut them down early compared to America. So first of all, think of that. They claim, oh, the regulator won't let us keep it on too long, so we'll have to just, shut it down.


01:09:06:07 - 01:09:44:11

Mark Nelson

Okay. So first we need to renovate it, and it's going to cost a few billion per unit. And you think, why does it cost a few billion? What are you operating? No, no, we're not operating. We're just renovating and we're meeting the safety standards. And then you see that their safety standards seem to have either they're saying that America is not staying safe and that we're intentionally endangering our public, or they've allowed an absolute, unchecked, unsafe scientific rampage in their safety regulators or the regulators of the safety regulators that are forcing them to do things that allow them to charge a bunch of money and expensive electricity rates to keep a small amount of electricity


01:09:44:11 - 01:09:56:00

Mark Nelson

flowing. I think that's what's probably happening. It's good for everybody but the planet, the consumer and the clean industries of Europe that are going to have to seek their power elsewhere.


01:09:56:02 - 01:10:16:03

Chris Keefer

So we've definitely been hearing some, I guess probably contrarian voices within the nuclear advocacy community arguing that the NRC ain't as bad as it's been made out to be. but the French regulator sounds, like, even even those defenders of the NRC might, might have some troubles there. So maybe just just go into that in a tiny bit more detail because, the I forget the French name of the renovation.


01:10:16:03 - 01:10:33:16

Mark Nelson

Yes. And and Ersan is that is the scientific side. And as is the sort of the legal regulatory side, as far as I can tell, you should bring on some French people to complain about this. But the problem is they won't because they they need to be careful. Whereas you and I don't really have to. I think that's part of the reason I'm here a lot.


01:10:33:18 - 01:11:02:19

Mark Nelson

Let me just say that the phrase safety ayatollah has come up several times in my conversations. And, safety ayatollah, you get the sense of needing to show a dignity through pronouncements that are very harsh, where you think that, the public has to be kept in religious, of the safety or something will go wrong. This is not a good way to run nuclear safety in a time of extremely high nuclear popularity.


01:11:03:00 - 01:11:27:10

Mark Nelson

And nor is it a good way to run safety in a time where you have an energy crisis in Europe. Now, the energy crisis in Europe is sort of lifting, but it's lifting with an EDF that, in my opinion, hasn't learned its lessons. It's still radically under producing. EDF should be producing 550 terawatt hours a year if you uprated by 10%, which is a very normal way to operate.


01:11:27:12 - 01:11:51:23

Mark Nelson

In fact, the French have excellent products for upgrading other people's reactors, just not their own. In fact, there was a law in 2015 that limited the maximum capacity in France and that that limitation is no longer in effect. And yet French planning has such an awful hangover from that 2015 to 2023 period of anti-nuclear law that they can't seem to get their excuses straight.


01:11:51:23 - 01:12:20:17

Mark Nelson

When I talk to them. Why? Why they have to have that limitation on capacity or why they can't operate there. They're all confused because they've spent so long with learned helplessness and cynical, I don't know, call it make work that doesn't make more electricity within EDF. They've forgotten the lessons of how they got to where they were in the first place of the lessons of Marcel Boiteux building what was needed, when it was needed, as it was needed.


01:12:20:19 - 01:12:45:13

Mark Nelson

And, I think if we if we had, say, Watteau, who passed away in September 6th last year at the age of 101, watching his his nuclear fleet in disarray, but with a few green shoots, with this total turnaround in the last and the last 18 months of his life on UN, the same politicians that were trying to destroy nuclear, trying to say that this is the foundation of French prosperity.


01:12:45:13 - 01:13:12:23

Mark Nelson

If we learn the lessons of water and we have intense economic analysis, backed up by moral strength, by by grit and hard work, I think we can redeem this French nuclear story to be what it really ought to be, which is a beacon of hope for people around the world that you truly can have your cake and eat it too, that you can figure out what's necessary by planning it, you can execute it.


01:13:13:04 - 01:13:40:21

Mark Nelson

It can lead to not total state control, but if anything, a flower of capitalism by provision of cheap, sustainable electricity for all, and that we can maintain it with the wisdom that the wisdom of being in the first nuclear native generation, rather than suffering through the traumas of the spirit of 68, or having only the hard sided vision of the generation that came of age during the fall of France.


01:13:40:22 - 01:14:03:10

Mark Nelson

I think we've got to take what we have. We're worse at other things, like our cell phones distract us all the time. I thought I heard yours going off during our talk here, Chris, but on the other hand, we have the strength, which is the ability to look back at the last 100 years of industrialization with great documentation, some of the living legends still around to instruct us we can do better.


01:14:03:10 - 01:14:07:23

Mark Nelson

We must do better. And the French example points the way on both counts.


01:14:08:00 - 01:14:22:03

Chris Keefer

It is interesting. decouple. Filmmaker Jesse Freeston, was in Europe in the summer of 2022 and did actually stop by Marcel Boiteux's apartment, but was unable to, to get an interview. I'm not sure if that was the same apartment, different apartment.


01:14:22:03 - 01:14:48:13

Mark Nelson

I forgot to mention when I talk about Memorial strength, in 1977, a bomb was placed at his apartment after warnings all night, every night for months, Barreto had his wife and his young daughter just back from, from an internship in America at home, when at 1:30 a.m., an extremely powerful bomb went off that, by sheer luck, did not kill him and his family.


01:14:48:15 - 01:15:18:08

Mark Nelson

It destroyed almost the entirety of their apartment and plenty of their neighbors apartments. And what to borrow to suit, and was at labor negotiations at 9 a.m. the same day, 7.5 hours after the bomb went off, he was at labor negotiations in a borrowed suit. And do you know what the press pointed out? They pointed out that he was staying in a particularly expensive suite at the George, the Fifth hotel in Paris, during this sad four day period that he didn't have a house.


01:15:18:10 - 01:15:36:04

Chris Keefer

Mark, I think you, elegantly wrap things up, in your last, little monologue there. but certainly a lot of threads to to tug on and look forward in the future. And I do really plan on getting some, European experts on to, to flesh this out, if they have the freedom of speech to do so.


01:15:36:06 - 01:16:08:08

Chris Keefer

but yeah, I mean, one thing that really seems to strike me looking forward is, as you're saying, the idea around, you know, probably closing prematurely a bunch of the glorious fleet that Marcel Boiteux brought to life, and, replacing those with, with New Eaters. And we're all seeing sort of how that is going right now, it seems, that a, all of the above approach of, of maintaining and upgrading that fleet, getting the operations of, to, American style capacity factors, as well as building new reactors, is, the Shining Path forward.


01:16:08:08 - 01:16:27:13

Chris Keefer

But concerning that, it looks like there's, there's not, the same kind of ambition to squeeze all the juice they can out of out of their existing fleet. Maybe we'll close it there. But, if you have any final comments, and then we'll, sign off and leave this topic for for further exploration in future.


01:16:27:13 - 01:16:27:21

Chris Keefer

Sure.


01:16:27:21 - 01:16:53:07

Mark Nelson

Well, I just say this. Since Marcel Boiteux has left, EDF has not been able to execute nuclear construction projects. Well, it just hasn't. He left in 88 since then. It's been crazy long build times when they built four reactors at the same time. same type in the 90s and and early 2000, although they did get slightly better still their first decade reactors.


01:16:53:07 - 01:17:19:17

Mark Nelson

Right. and it's not clear that EDF has made from atom that France has made money exporting nuclear reactors. Maybe the fuel. Yes, but they can do that without exporting nuclear reactors. So what's funny to me is that as bad as they are operating nuclear fleets, they're worse at construction. And yet they claim the French claim they don't have time to think about actually operating their nuclear plants better.


01:17:19:22 - 01:17:43:04

Mark Nelson

Like in the like in the rest of the West. They have to concentrate on upgrading them without putting out more output, turning them off right after that, and then building new plants to just have the exact same capacity as before. This is unfathomable, and I hope that there's an honest conversation in France. What on earth the nuclear program is for?


01:17:43:06 - 01:18:00:09

Mark Nelson

It can't just be for national pride. At some point. The nuclear has to be about producing a lot of clean energy at the cheapest possible rates. If Europe is to have a chance against the China's and America's and even the Russias of the world in our energy dominated future.


01:18:00:11 - 01:18:15:00

Chris Keefer

Yeah, yeah, well, certainly the age of the operator added something like 20GW of nuclear capacity to American production without having to build another nuclear plant. And it seems like, you're mentioning jumping from something like 350 terawatt hours, up to 500.


01:18:15:02 - 01:18:16:11

Mark Nelson

and we're extending plants.


01:18:16:17 - 01:18:17:10

Chris Keefer

Ghost nuclear.


01:18:17:10 - 01:18:34:03

Mark Nelson

Standing plants that were used as reference plants for the French fleet to 80 years and beyond. And and the French say, oh, are regulators too mean? Even after a billion and upgrades 2 billion, we won't be allowed. So we just have to plan not to. So we have to plan to shut them down.


01:18:34:05 - 01:18:49:14

Chris Keefer

All right. Well, we'll we'll leave that, pregnant question in the air. What would Marcel Boiteux do? Thank you. Mark, I've been a long time coming. Great to do this episode. And for folks who are wanting to, read that biography, will, we'll get a link, to the text that you can buy online.


01:18:49:15 - 01:19:12:02

Mark Nelson

And I think, again, I don't want to leave people just a negative thought. Make France great again. That's my that's my call. And that greatness is going to come from France defending the interests of a 90 to 95% capacity factor nuclear fleet powering all of Europe, plunging into other countries. Europe says it wants the super grid, Chris. Then give it to them.


01:19:12:02 - 01:19:40:08

Mark Nelson

Powered by French nuclear that operates well and not badly. Take UK out of its terrible situation. Bailout the Irish, even bailout Spain bail out Italy bail out the countries that are shutting off nuclear capacity or already shut it down or can add it. France's nuclear can be the center of a clean energy Europe. If France follows the lessons of of of Marcel, evaluate it carefully.


01:19:40:11 - 01:20:00:08

Mark Nelson

Don't let politics stand in the way of the obvious operating economics of running your fleet. 95% capacity factor instead of 55 or 60% or 65%, which is what they may get up to this year. You've got to operate at 95%, operate your reactors and make France and Europe great again. That's my call.


01:20:00:10 - 01:20:24:06

Chris Keefer

All right. That was actually the slogan, in Glasgow at the the French pavilion. so this isn't just a, you know, Trump tinge reference. It was used by the French themselves, their, their, particle board pavilion in Glasgow. Anyway, Mark will leave it there. Great. Catching up.


01:20:24:08 - 01:20:24:13

Chris Keefer




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