Nuke Free? Not France, Not Soon Anyway

The French public would like the country to end its dependence on nuclear power for most of its energy needs in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi plant disaster in Japan, but don't expect the government to do much about it.

Considering that much of France's economy is tied to nuclear energy, there is not much chance that there will be any sort of shift away from nuclear energy production there in the foreseeable future.

Nuclear power has always been controversial in France, but the public outcry against nuclear power among the French electorate has grown recently. Following recent announcements by Germany and Switzerland that they will eventually phase out nuclear power production in their countries, the French public is overwhelmingly in favor of ending their own reliance on nuclear power.

In a survey conducted this month, French market research firm Ifop found that 77 percent of those polled seek either the immediate or gradual phase-out of nuclear energy production in France.

But despite the French public's hostility towards the nuclear power plants that dot France, neither government-controlled EDF nor Areva, the world's largest nuclear energy producer and distributor, have expressed doubts about their nuclear futures. Areva chief executive Anne Lauvergeon told Dow Jones in May that she was confident that nuclear power would remain a primary source of energy in France as well as around the world. “The world is not saying 'no' to nuclear,” Lauvergeon told the wire agency. It “is simply saying nuclear is not for everyone.”

Besides being one of the largest employers in France (Areva employs over 5,000 in the United States alone) and one of its largest exporters, the nuclear industry offers perceived benefits to French society. France, for example, has one of the lowest electricity rates in the Western world — it helps that over 70 percent of its electrical power is derived from nuclear energy, according to France's government statistics office, the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE). Nuclear proponents in France also readily emphasize how nuclear power production generates a fraction of the carbon dioxide emissions that coal-produced electricity releases into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, it is interesting to see how France's mainstream politicians are either ignoring public opinion or tiptoeing around the nuclear issue (aside from the Green Party and other environmental activists, which, however, do not hold much political weight relative to France's major parties).

For example, Eric Besson, Minister of Industry, Energy, and the Digital Economy, told television reporters last weekend that phasing out nuclear energy production in France would be “excessively expensive” and was not “under discussion.”

France's Socialist Party opposition leaders have recently stepped up criticism over nuclear power while advocating further development of renewable energy sources. However, none has offered a firm plan. François Hollande, one of the Socialist favorites, who leads in polls prior to the first round of the French presidential elections in 2012, has expressed an interest in France relying less on nuclear energy but has ruled out communicating any set timeline by when the country might phase out nuclear power.

France's mainstream political elite on the right and left now face the conundrum of trying to convince the French public that nuclear power production is in their best interest. Hopefully, a disaster will never occur that would force French politicians to respect the wishes of its population. But in the meantime, don't except France's nuclear status quo to change much.

18 comments on “Nuke Free? Not France, Not Soon Anyway

  1. Taimoor Zubar
    June 7, 2011

    While the initiative get rid of nuclear power generation might be a good one, I don't think it's practical – at least not in the short run. If France really want to switch away from Nuclear power, what are some of the alternate energy sources they can use? Would these be as efficient as Nuclear power?

  2. prabhakar_deosthali
    June 7, 2011

    Since Canada and US are some of the early adopters of Nuclear energy for power generation, it will be interesting to find out what is the public opinion about this issue in these countries. These two countries can tilt the balance in favor or against the phasing out of nuclear power. More than economics , the environment and the whole human race is  at a major risk if the safeguards built into the nuclear power stations fail becuase of the natural calamities of the proportion of what happend in Japan.

  3. AnalyzeThis
    June 7, 2011

    With all the recent controversies regarding nuclear power, people seem to forget that there's a very viable reason for this technology to exist: it can be very cheap. Obviously, if 70% of France is powered by nuclear energy and they have some of the lowest rates in the western world… I mean, anybody can connect the dots here.

    And you mention some of the other benefits. Nuclear power is not all bad. At the moment, it just happens to be incredibly unpopular.

    And it's also obvious that in hindsight we didn't really have the control or understanding of the technology that we believed that we had.

  4. Barbara Jorgensen
    June 7, 2011

    Great point DennisQ. I read an interview not too long ago with one of the former leaders of Greenpeace. His is ardently pro-nuke. I was completely shocked, so I read the articel and learned a lot about nuclear power. It's impossible to weigh the risk/reward scenario when human lives are involved, such as the case in Japan, but nuclear power has a lot of advantages. It is much mroe than an emotional debate and thanks for helping our readers become better informed.

  5. Bruce Gain
    June 8, 2011

    That's incredible Barbara–do you have a link that sheds more light on Greenpeace's pro-nuke stance?

  6. Bruce Gain
    June 8, 2011

    DennisQ: I share your opinion on the subject. But are the French really that prepared to handle a crisis to the extent that the Japanese are? I remain highly skeptical.

    June 8, 2011

    I have never considered myself a “tree hugger” but I was gobsmacked when I read an article last year that said all spent nuclear fuel EVER produced in the UK is still sitting in containers in the UK waiting on a strategy to dispose of it.  Oftentimes low level nuclear waste is sitting in hundreds of steel drums in storage sheds and will take over a hundred years to decay.  High level waste can take more than a thousand years to decay to safe levels.  I found this quite unsettling considering the chance of natural disaster, terrorism or human error.  We really need to curb our consumption of energy and move to more environmentally friendly power sources.  This will be painful and expensive but worth it in the long run.

  8. Daniel
    June 8, 2011

    Recent disaster in Japan’s Fukushima reactor made a second thought in every body's mind about nuclear energy. That’s a usual procedure in wake of any accidents or happenings and such thoughts have only a few months life time too. Thereafter nobody is going to think or talk about it .The same way of thought happens in 1986, after the Chernobyl disaster in Russia. But there is one reality, only nuclear energy can cater the huge requirements. Even though there are other energy sources like Hydro electric, sea wave tidal, solar etc are readily available in our  surroundings, it have its own limitations. But I agree about the saftey concerns and issues. So instead of shutting down the operation, it’s better to think about, how we can address the saftey issues and concerns.

  9. jbond
    June 8, 2011

    This is an interesting article. Nuclear power is one of the cheapest and most efficient energy sources out there. You have a lower cost, which means cheaper energy, and you have a lot less greenhouse gas production. As the world (particularly the U.S.) is promoting how we need to convert to cleaner emissions, why would you want to ditch a cleaner energy source to a much dirtier one?

    The Japanese nuclear disaster was and still is a horrible situation. It will take the Japanese years to get back to normal. However, the problems that arose from this were caused by a “perfect storm”. The Japanese plant had 3 large fail safes in place. All designed to prevent a disaster. Nobody could have imagined that between an earthquake and the following tsunami that they would fail. Japan was unfortunate due to their location. France and many other nuclear countries would not of had the same results. One of the fail safes would have kept the other intact.

    It is sad when we let fear rule our lives. We have a cheap, cleaner energy source that people want gone for fear of a disaster.


  10. vivi_liv
    June 10, 2011

    Almost all of the 18 reactors are in souther Ontario within 140 km of Toronto.

    50% of Ontario's electricity is Nuclear. The average Canadian is using 3 times more electricity than the average French.

    Nuclear industry has a lot of support in Ontario as lots of communities are working in the industry.

    2 more reactors will be build in Darlington starting in 2014 in order to replace 2 older reactors that will be shut down (in Pickering). 2 refurbished reactors will be started in 2011 and 2012 respectively. This is the Bruce Nuclear Power plant.

    Canada has some of the best Uranium (highest grades) reserves in Saskatchewan.

    Nuclear power has lots of support from public opinion. I believe more than 60% of population support nuclear power.

  11. prabhakar_deosthali
    June 11, 2011

    @vivi_liv    Thank you for sharing this information about Canada. way back in 1960's India started its Nuclear power program in collaboration with first the US for plutonium based light water reactors and then with Canada for Uranium based heavy water reactors for power generation. I had been part of India Atomic Energy dept for a span of 5 years and had a deep exposure to the Nuclear science , nuclear engineering and reactor engineering. The kind of safety masures that are built into a nuclear reactor make it one of the safest plants compared to the other industrial plants. However with the kind of natural disaster that played havoc with the reactor cooling system in Japan,has made the designers to think of additional safety to be built into the reactor design. I am sure IAEA will come up with solutions for this problem so that the world will continue to enjoy the benefits of this cheap source of Electrical power generation.

  12. vivi_liv
    June 11, 2011

    Yes. Today's designs are a lot safer than 40 years ago designs. But they do not replace the human factor. Procedures and processes need to be in place to make a nuclear power place safe.

    What happened at Cernobyl was simply put “playing with fire”. Stop the primary cooling circuit without even engaging the secondary cooling circuit. Reactor got unstable….

    At Fukushima it was underestimating the tsunami risk. Maybe they thought the probablity of a huge tsunami was 1/300 years when in reality is 1/100 years…. Again, no cooling for reactor caused the accident….

    When 2003 blackout bit in Canada and US, reactors at Pickering Nunclear Power were running full power. It was peak demand in the middle of a summer day. The nuclear power plant started the shutdown procedure and diesel were engaged to to power the cooling pumps. The emergency shut-down procedure worked fine.These 6 reactors are located 36 km from Toronto.

    Nuclear power is not the cleanest form of energy as small radioactive releases are part of every day life of a nuclear reactor, but it is a LOT cleaner than coal. In southern Ontario 50% of smog is caused by coal power plants. An areea of 80km around a coal power plant soil is contaminated with heavy metals (especially mercury).

    Germany is building now 20 coal power plants to replace lost nuclear power and is importing nuclear power from France and Czech Republic. This is just a political maneuver: they are OK to continue using nuclear power as long as the reactors are located 40km across the border. Plus they start building coal power plants which are a lot worse polluters.

  13. stochastic excursion
    June 11, 2011

    The extraction and consumption of any fuel, along with disposing of by-products, enough to power a modern economy, is never “clean”.  You are literally playing with fire, and thermal generation of electricity, especially nuclear, means having contingencies for low likelihood, but high-impact events.  Adverse events involving fossil fuels can be destructive, maybe even more destructive than most nuclear events.  However nothing in fossil fuel energy production exceeds the magnitude of disaster when the ability to cool a nuclear pile is lost. 

    The Chernobyl debacle may have been swept under the rug, but that disaster is still happening.  The tons of concrete covering the molten fuel is reported to be undergoing disintegration, necessitating ever more maintenance.  Fukushima looks to be worse off, and is also planned to be buried under concrete.  The very existence of a human factor in the disaster equation should cause people to eschew nuclear infrastructure altogether. 

    Countries that cling to a nuclear infrastructure are also countries that cling to having a nuclear arsenal.  France's bout with Greenpeace made their South Pacific nuclear weapons tests well publicized.  France can say natural disasters don't happen there, but as a host to the many, many of the most highly destructive conflicts in history I wouldn't be too sanguine about a stable operating environment.

    Not to put a damper on the nuclear supply chain, but this is a technology that should be scaled down considerably.  Germany shows some hypocrisy by importing the nuclear energy produced just across the border, but the principled stand it took in banning nuclear power within its borders I think makes up for that.

  14. vivi_liv
    June 11, 2011

    I agree with you on thermal generation of electricity (from coal and nuclear) not beying dirty. Nuclear is not clean, but it is a lot cleaner than coal. Coal should be phased out first.

    Natural gas is burning clean (CH4 + O2 = CO2 + H2O) but CO2 is a green house gas.

    In Toronto 1 in 5 children develops astma. 50% of smog originates in coal burning power plants and the other 50% is from cars.

    The government of Ontario will phase out the coal power plants and will replace them with more 2 reactors starting in 2011 and 2012 at Bruce Nuclear Power Plant.

    Nuclear power is dirty and coal is even dirtier. The environment is far more radioactive close to coal power plants.

    Renewables are best if you can afford to pay 40 c/kwh. Nuclear power generating cost is about 3 c/kwh (but it is not including the long cost to storing/processing nuclear waste).

    Maybe Germany and Japan can put their technological muscle to develop more efficient renewables…but for the next 20-40 years nuclear power will be used as a bridge.

    Solar panels are great if you live in Southern California where government subsidizes it and you have high intensity solar radiation 70% of the time.

    Human hypocrisy is such that all of us want to be “environmental friendly” and none of us want to change anything. All homes have AC running to the max and 2 cars (one car+one SUV) parked outside.


  15. stochastic excursion
    June 11, 2011

    Hypocrisy is more common when the stakes are high, but there's one trend that's encouraging.  That's people, who oppose turning regions of the world into no-man's land, applying their beliefs to changes in their lifestyle.  They risk being branded as Luddites, but when the facts are so conclusive, it's actions, not words that count.

  16. prabhakar_deosthali
    June 12, 2011

    This has been a great debate so far. If we consider the effect of a tilt away from nuclear power to Electronic supply chain, I think there is no immediate cause to worry. The pace at which the Nuclear power generation industry works is much much slower compared to the core consumer and industrial electronics business. It requires years for the suppliers to get approved to supply nuclear grade components. It takes sometimes a decade to conceive and erect a nuclear power plant. So what ever shift occurs – away or towards the nuclear power , it will be very slow and the suppliers will have enough time to look for alternative pastures for their business conituity.

  17. Clairvoyant
    June 12, 2011

    Great points, Vivi_liv. I questioned the statement of coal power plants producing more radiation than Nuclear at first, but then looked into it more, and it is indeed true. Here is an article from Scientific American: Perhaps having Nuclear Power Plants near earthquake zones is not the greatest idea (like Japan), but I think the media has had a huge influence on how the general population thinks about Nuclear power generation.

  18. stochastic excursion
    June 12, 2011

    I'll have to agree about being able to measure higher radiation from coal plants than from nuclear plants, especially when nuclear plants are designed to contain radiation.  Even when there are core explosions, unless you are in the proximity of radioactive contaminants, the exposure is relatively low.  When contaminants are released, however, they tend to get into the food chain and the water supply.  The danger from radioactive contamination is well-established.  The radiation is important to consider when you have workers around a molten core trying to restore cooling mechanisms.  For the general public though, radiation power density is not really an issue outside of the contamination problem.  This is really something that I would expect a publication like Scientific American to address. 

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