The Nukes That Power France

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In France, an aggressive nuclear program was launched in 1974. The French case provides valuable insights into nuclear power that are relevant to the debates about energy that have arisen as the Fukushima nuclear plant has been in meltdown.

Was the community engaged and consulted in the decision to roll out nuclear power in France? The short answer is no. Key support for the government came from the unions, not from the broader population which had not been consulted.

Unions were put on side after the creation of the state energy monopoly Electricité de France (EDF) in 1946. The utility became one of the biggest employers in the country and unions became closely associated with the management of its large Social Committee whose budget is equivalent to 1 per cent of the company’s financial turnover. This close relationship proved instrumental to the implementation of the aggressive nuclear program. There might have been problems with public opinion but the work on the plants got done.

Once things were on the way, subsequent efforts to craft a national narrative in support of this enterprise kicked in. Effort was made in schools and the media to build a specific pride in scientific research and engineering culture. Pioneers of nuclear research like Pierre and Marie Curie came in handy as symbols to celebrate France’s contemporary advances in nuclear power. It was as if the development of the nuclear sector was legitimatised as the pursuit of the direction they had set. The development of the nuclear energy was the French moon race.

So what was the nuclear promise? Former prime minister Pierre Messmer, who supervised the launch of the program, outlined the pro-nuclear case on national television in 1974:

"France has not been favoured by nature in energy resources. There is almost no petrol on our territory, we have less coal than England and Germany and much less gas than Holland … our great chance is electrical energy of nuclear origin because we have had good experience with it since the end of World War II … In this effort that we will make to acquire a certain independence, or at least reduced dependence in energy, we will give priority to electricity and in electricity to nuclear electricity."

That was it. 35 years later there were some 58 nuclear power stations in France.

Messmer’s statements about the importance of energy independence are echoed by contemporary world leaders in their statements on nuclear power. But have all the promises about nuclear power in France been kept? A recent report (pdf) commissioned by the Greens group in the European Parliament shows that the impact of nuclear power to reduce fossil fuel consumption is more limited than commonly thought. While 77 per cent of the French electricity comes from nuclear plants, it only represents 16 per cent of the total energy consumed by the country. The reason is that oil and gas still represent 48 and 21 per cent respectively of the energy consumed by transport, industry and agriculture — as well as residential and commercial consumption. Total dependence on fossil fuels is far from been broken.

A perverse effect of the nuclear program has also been to artificially boost electricity consumption instead of encouraging substitution for other energy sources. Because its nuclear capacity was significantly oversized, and instead of scaling down when it could in the 1980s, the public power company developed very aggressive policies to export base load power to the rest of Europe. Long-term electricity purchase agreements were signed with Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and the UK resulting in France exporting the equivalent of 20 per cent of its national consumption by the early 1990s. The power company also dumped electricity into markets like space heating, hot water heating or home cooking appliances. You might notice next time you visit France how prevalent electrical heaters and stoves are in households, for example.

The safety record is also less robust than commonly admitted. Superior safety standards are traditionally a strong argument in favour of the nuclear sector.

The trouble with opposing the safety of the 442 reactors to the 50,000+ fossil fuel power plants worldwide, is that we are not really comparing apples with apples. It would be more useful to understand how the current statistics would evolve if nuclear plants proliferated on the same scale as fossil fuel facilities.

Here again, the French example gives interesting insights. Between 10,000 and 12,000 events are identified (pdf) in French nuclear plants every year of which 600 to 800 are considered "significant events".  Moreover the current trend of privatisation of the energy sector is becoming incompatible with the "risk appetite" of the nuclear industry. The pursuit of commercial profit and nuclear safety do not mix. The state is now a majority shareholder in nuclear power in France whose priority is the maximisation of financial dividends and returns. As a result, the enforcement of strict and costly security standards has given ground to financial profitability. Because of increasing concerns about those compromises on safety, even conservative politicians such as Gaullist sovereignist Nicolas Dupont Aignan now call for a re-nationalisation of the sector.

This is compounded by the difficulty of maintaining a high level of competence in the workforce. 40 per cent of the generation of scientists and engineers that have conceived and operated the current nuclear facilities will retire by 2015. Replacing them has become EDF’s most urgent management concern in the last years.

The French case study demonstrate that although civilian nuclear power has some merits, even putting aside the risks traditionally associated with the atomic chain-reaction, it is no panacea to solve all energy issues.

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