Marcel Boiteux, one of the fathers of French nuclear power, died at 101

Marcel Boiteux. Szwarc Henri / Szwarc Henri/ABACA

At the head of EDF for twenty years, from 1967 to 1987, he left his mark on the history of the company and economic research.

Marcel Boiteux died on Wednesday September 6, at the age of 101. Last year, the energy world in France paid tribute to him for his centenary. “One of the main architects of the French nuclear power fleet”, Minister Agnès Pannier-Runacher tweeted while EDF named its campus in Saclay after her. A mark of recognition for the man who was at the head of the public company for twenty years, as general manager then as president.

EDF, he said, he had entered “in all innocence”, in 1949, never to leave it again. Normalien, ociate professor of mathematics in 1946 at the end of a war he had fought in Italy (the war cross was awarded to him) after having fled France via Spain to escape the STO, Marcel Boiteux was first a student of Maurice Allais. The economist wanted to send two of his students to the United States, but only won one scholarship for them. We draw heads or tails. It was Gérard Debreu who left, and became Nobel Prize winner in economics five years before Allais. Marcel Boiteux stays, misses “forever the opportunity to master the English language and one day become boss of EDF”.

“Like Arvers and his sonnet, my relative notoriety in the industry is only due to these twenty pages”

Marcel Boiteux in his autobiography “Haute Tension”.

Before taking charge, Marcel Boiteux entered EDF through the back door of economic studies, in order to help the company, as he had done at SNCF, to build its pricing policy. A work which earned him international recognition with the publication in the journal Econometrica in 1956 with Franck Ramsey of a founding article on marginal pricing. “Like Arvers and his sonnet, my relative notoriety in the industry is only due to these twenty pages”, writes Boiteux with humor in his autobiography “Haute Tension”. Our contemporary debates on the electricity market are still largely inspired by the theoretical and practical work of Marcel Boiteux, who sought both to provide a robust economic framework for the EDF monopoly, and to give the consumer the right information on the cost of electrons that it consumed – thus peak/off-peak rates were born – and to prioritize the different modes of production according to their development and operating costs at a time when thermal power stations (coal or fuel oil) competed with hydraulic and then nuclear production.

Read alsoBertille Bayart: “On nuclear power, the endless fight between France and Germany”

“A normalien at the head of EDF”

Nuclear power was precisely the big business of Marcel Boiteux, appointed general director of EDF in 1967, a position which was not intended for an economist. “A normalien at the head of EDF! Paris-Presse headlined in large letters, as if a catastrophe had struck somewhere in the world: “EDF torn from École Polytechnique”, he joked in his memoirs. It was under his reign that the French nuclear park was decided and built. “It’s always a Saturday morning, in a rush, that big decisions are born”, writes the former boss of EDF. In this case, a Saturday morning in December 1973, when the Ministry of Energy gave EDF three hours to estimate “the maximum number of units that EDF considers itself capable of committing”. No more than six or seven per year, answers the company at noon. Thus was born the Messmer plan decided by Georges Pompidou. Thus Marcel Boiteux was also plunged into the maelstrom of the debate on the development of nuclear power, marked by the violence in Creys-Malleville on the breeder reactor site (one dead), and by the attack claimed by the “action committee against atomic thugs» who blew up his home the same year. “Within ten minutes, we were pulverized”, writes Marcel Boiteux, since the rooms were spared by an explosion which destroyed all the other rooms of the apartment. A time of disputes which led Marcel Boiteux to sincere reflections on nuclear power, and to a final conclusion: “properly harnessed nuclear energy is the only environmentally friendly form of energy that is mively available today”he writes inHigh tension», written in 1993.

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