Design work began in 1968, the same year as construction began for the smaller-scale LMFBR Phénix, following the abandonment of the graphite-gas designs. The fast breeder design was chosen in the face of fears of disruption to the supply of other fuels; the "plutonium economy" seemed viable if oil prices stayed high and uranium supplies dwindled. Construction was approved in 1972 and lasted from 1974 to 1981, but power production did not begin until 1985. Costs rose rapidly during construction. The plant was run by the consortium NERSA, 51% owned by EDF.
There was considerable popular protest during construction; a march by 60,000 protestors in July 1977 was broken up by the CRS with the death of Vital Michalon and over a hundred serious injuries.
On May 8, 2003, Chaïm Nissim, who in 1985 was elected to the Geneva cantonal government for the Swiss Green Party, admitted carrying out the attack. He claimed that the weapons were obtained from Carlos the Jackal via the Belgian terrorist organisation Cellules Communistes Combattantes (Communist Combatant Cells).
In September 1998, the plant was closed. Two incidents earlier in the year had culminated in a third, which triggered an automatic shutdown. In December 1990 structural damage occurred following heavy snowfall. Power production did not resume until the Direction de la sûreté des installations nucléaires was approved in 1992.
The plant was connected to EdF grid in December 1994 and produced 4 300 GWh of electricity, worth about a billion 1995 Frank, during the next 10 months of operation. In 1996 it produced 3 400 GWh worth about 850 million Franks.
During 11 years, the plant spent 63 months of normal operations, mostly at low power; 25 months of outages due to fixing technical problems of the prototype; and 66 months were spent on halt due to political and administrative issues.
Power production was halted in December 1996 for maintenance. However, following a court case led by opponents of the reactor, on February 28, 1997 the Conseil d'État (Supreme State Administrative Court) ruled that a 1994 decree, authorizing the restart of Superphénix, was invalid. In June 1997, one of the first actions of Lionel Jospin on becoming Prime Minister was to announce the closure of the plant "because of its excessive costs". Jospin's government included Green ministers; pro-nuclear critics have argued that Jospin's decision was motivated by political motives (i.e., to please his Green political allies) rather than rational considerations. However, the reactor did not produce electricity most of the time in its last ten years because of malfunctions (in fact it was consuming substantial power to maintain sodium above melting temperature).
Superphénix was the last fast breeder reactor operating in Europe for electricity production. According to a 1996 report by the French Accounting Office (Cour des Comptes), the total expenditure on the reactor to date was estimated at 60 billion francs (9.1 billion euro).
A public inquiry was launched in April 2004 to consider plans to set up a plant to incorporate the 5,500 tonnes of sodium coolant in 70,000 tonnes of concrete. The plan is similar to that used following the closure of the Dounreay Fast Reactor in the United Kingdom.