Tug-of-War over Nuclear Energy in France

Tina Gerhardt Jul 20, 2011

The nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant has upended the politics of atomic energy worldwide. Following the disaster, Germany announced a phase out of nuclear energy by 2022, Switzerland decided to decommission its last plant by 2034, and Italy’s voters decided to shut down their plants as well.

But France, which gets 74 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy — more than any other country, has made no move to phase out or reduce its investment in nuclear energy, even though it is becoming an increasingly contentious issue in the country.

On Monday, June 27, France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy stated that he would ramp up funding for nuclear energy, promising that France would invest €1 billion in the embattled nuclear energy sector. Just the day before Sarkozy’s announcement, 5,000 demonstrators formed a human chain around Fessenheim — France’s oldest nuclear power plant in operation since 1977 — demanding it be shut down.

The plant is located on a faultline. In 1980, the area experienced an 7.1 magnitude earthquake. The plant also rests 26 feet below the level of a nearby canal and it is unclear whether appropriate safety precautions are in place in case of flooding. To make matters worse, over 100,000 persons live within a 12-mile radius of the plant. (A four-part Associated Press series recently called attention to the fact that when nuclear power plants were built, the size of the populations living near them were lower. That is, they were not built with today’s population density in mind.)

There’s more. The Fessenheim plant is located in Alsace, on the French-German border, a historically contested region between the two countries. This is key to the debates around the plant. After Fukushima, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for the temporary closure of seven nuclear power plants, the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, which neighbors Alsace, called for the temporary closure of Fessenheim, citing safety issues. Since then, a French regional council has also voted to shut down the plant.

Worries about the safety of France’s nuclear energy industry increased in recent weeks. On July 2, an explosion sparked a fire at the Tricastin nuclear power plant in Drôme, in southern France. Just two days prior, France’s nuclear regulatory committee – the Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN) – stated the plant needed to address 32 safety issues in order for the plant’s lifespan to be extended by 10 years. In particular, the ASN said the plant needed to improve safety measures in order to prepare for potential earthquakes and flooding. The Tricastin nuclear power plant, like Fessenheim, is very old: it was built in 1974 and began operating in 1980.

Meanwhile, an ASN inspection of the two reactors at Fessenheim found that in order for its life span to be extended by 10 years, Fessenheim 1 needed to reinforce its base by June 2013 and take measures to protect against heat in case cooling mechanisms fail. The other reactor, Fessenheim 2 is currently also being reviewed for a 10-year extension.

Could these direct actions and the regional council vote coinciding with the nuclear energy industry’s safety violations and concerns be the beginning of a seismic shift in France’s nuclear energy debate? If so, it would be epic.

France has 58 nuclear power plants, the second largest number of nuclear power plants after the US with 104. It has depended on nuclear power because it has very few natural energy resources. It has no oil, no gas and its coal resources are very poor

But while it seems France would have a long way to go to phase out nuclear energy, it is already among the top 10 producers of wind power and its extensive shoreline provides plenty of opportunities to ramp up offshore wind farms even further. Additionally, if France increased solar energy, it could also supply a significant amount of electricity to the nation.

Transitioning away from nuclear power will definitely be gradual and take years. But Germany, for example, has devised a roadmap for how to achieve the transition to renewables. It has to begin sometime, somewhere, somehow — and the troubled Fessenheim nuclear power plant just might be the place to start with and the increased anti-nuclear direct action might be the way.

Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist who covers climate change, international negotiations and energy policy. Her work has appeared in Alternet, Earth Island Journal, Grist, In These Times, The Nation and The Progressive. She has also appeared on GRITtv with Laura Flanders, the National Radio Project, Pacifica Radio’s KPFK and WBAI.

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