August 18, 2008

France Sticks With Nuclear Power Oil Prices and Climate Change, It Says, Vindicate ’50s Choice

By Steven Erlanger

Maia de la Baume contributed reporting from Paris and Matthew L. Wald contributed from Washington.


It looks like an ordinary building site, but for the two massive, rounded concrete shells looming above the ocean, like dusty mushrooms.

Here on the Normandy coast, France is building its newest nuclear reactor, alongside two older ones. It is the first reactor to be built in the country in 10 years and will cost $5.1 billion. And President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced that France will build yet another.

Flamanville is a vivid example of the French choice for nuclear power, made in the late 1950s by Charles de Gaulle, backed up during the oil shocks of the 1970s and maintained despite the nuclear accident in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, and the nightmare at Chernobyl.

Nuclear power provides 77 percent of France's electricity, the government says, and relatively few public doubts about its safety are expressed in a country with little coal, oil or natural gas.

With the wild increase in the cost of oil, anxiety over global warming from burning fossil fuels and new concerns about the impact of biofuels on the price of food for the poor, nuclear energy is getting a second look in countries that can afford it, like the United States and Britain. Even Germany, committed to phasing out nuclear power by 2021, is debating whether to change its mind.

France is way ahead. Electricite de France, or EDF, is negotiating to buy British Energy, for about $24 billion, to renovate Britain's nuclear plants and build new ones. The French have already contracted to build a third-generation European Pressurized Reactor of the Flamanville type - the world's safest and most powerful - in Abu Dhabi and China.

There is pride in French exceptionalism and in the technical skill that has produced an industry with no major accidents. In a recent op-ed article in Le Figaro, for example, Yves Threard, one of the top editors of the paper and a Sarkozy ally, boasted: "France hasn't any oil, but she knew how to exploit a rich idea. In the whirlwind of globalization, civil nuclear power became a weapon, commercial and political, that allowed the country to remain at the avant-garde in the concert of nations."

A senior aide to Jean-Louis Borloo, the minister of ecology, sustainable development and planning, said that France "sees a wide trend developing" toward more use of nuclear energy.

"A lot of countries realize that with the rising price of fossil fuels and energy, and the climate emergency, nuclear can be part of the solution," said the aide, who spoke anonymously under the rules of the ministry. He emphasized that France's choice for a "closed fuel cycle" - reprocessing used nuclear fuel to recover plutonium made in the reactors so it can be reused - was safer. "This way, nuclear energy can bring a lot - it's CO 2 -free energy."

Sarkozy said that each European Pressurized Reactor that "replaces a gas-powered electricity plant saves two billion cubic meters of gas each year, and each EPR replacing a coal plant means cutting 11 million tons of CO 2 ."

France generates half of its own total energy, up from 23 percent in 1973, despite increased consumption. And electrical power generation accounts for only 10 percent of France's greenhouse gases, compared with an average of 40 percent in other industrialized countries, according to EDF.

France has 58 operating nuclear reactors, the highest number of any nation besides the United States, where nuclear construction has been moribund, though there is also new interest. At the moment, 19.4 percent of the electricity generated in the United States is from 104 nuclear plants, the Department of Energy says.

But for all the optimistic talk in France there are continuing doubts and confusion about nuclear power, accentuated by a series of accidents and alerts in July.

At a nuclear plant in Tricastin, in Provence, 163 pounds of untreated uranium in liquid leaked from a faulty tank during a draining operation, seeping into the ground and then into rivers that flow into the Rhone.

While the two-year-old Authority for Nuclear Security, an independent body overseeing civilian nuclear activities, called it a category one (out of seven) incident that posed no health risk, the local prefect banned fishing, irrigation, swimming and the use of well water. The ban lasted 14 days, and the government criticized Areva, the nuclear group that is mostly state-owned, for not informing the local authorities quickly or adequately. The treatment station, which was old, was being replaced, and remains shut.

Other minor accidents occurred in quick succession: An underground pipe burst at another site north of Tricastin, leaking a tiny amount of uranium inside plant grounds, and there was another accident at Tricastin itself, when 100 employees were contaminated by radioactive particles that escaped from a pipe.

The government, Areva and EDF have played down the accidents.

Borloo said there were 86 category-one nuclear incidents in France in 2007 and 114 in 2006. Borloo's aide, pointing to the Authority for Nuclear Security, said the Tricastin "microevent" showed that "our system of security is extremely responsive and transparent, and that the media and public opinion needed a training period to understand how the system of nuclear security works in France."

Still, there is continuing nervousness. Sales of bottled water increased, and even a nearby appellation of local wine, Coteaux du Tricastin, is exploring whether to change its name, said Henri Bour, who runs the local wine council.

A prominent French anti-nuclear lobby, Sortir du Nucleaire, or "Get Out of Nuclear," is pressing to phase out nuclear power, which it considers too dangerous and too expensive because of the need to manage nuclear waste. The group wants a "sustainable transition" to renewable energy options like solar, hydro and wind power. Last year, on the 21st anniversary of the Chernobyl meltdown, 30 protesters at Flamanville blocked entrances and chained themselves to cranes.

There have also been some construction issues. In April, the Authority for Nuclear Safety criticized some of the welds and the quality of the concrete work at Flamanville, but work resumed in June.

Philippe Leynie, the site manager here for EDF, said the problem involved missing pins on the metal rebar and was not serious.

Nonetheless, an opinion poll conducted for Le Monde after the Tricastin leaks showed that 67 percent of the French considered it vital to keep nuclear power in the country's energy mix, compared with 52 percent in 2002.

Only 27 percent judged the risks of nuclear energy to be the most worrying, compared with 50 percent who thought global warming was the predominant risk.

In 2002, 33 percent worried most about nuclear risks and only 20 percent about global warming.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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