The Fukushima disaster led many countries to rethink their view on nuclear energy. Germany plans to abandon it altogether, but French President Francois Hollande also wants to cut nuclear output sharply – by a third in 20 years. It’s a big ask in a country that now relies on nuclear for 75% of its electricity.
If fully implemented, the pledge would force the closure of up to 20 of the country’s 58 reactors according to Professor Laurence Tubiana a former government adviser who the president asked to facilitate a national debate, paving the way for what they call le transition energetique.
This would be a huge step, but Tubiana describes it as a “logical evolution”.
France realised that Japan had survived economically when all its atomic power stations were shut down because of its diverse energy mix. In Japan, before the disaster, nuclear power delivered about 30% of the country’s electricity, but France is hugely dependent not only on nuclear, but on a single generation of nuclear power stations.
It is vulnerable to a “generic risk”, according to Tubiana, where a problem with one reactor could force them all offline for the fault to be fixed. This would cause chaos.
She says the 20 reactors closed in the “transition” could be replaced by renewable energy, which she says would maintain French energy independence and be both “stable and secure”.
There is evidently reluctance in cabinet. Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg is on record as saying that Fessenheim will be the only nuclear power station to close.
On a visit to China in December he reassured his audience that nuclear energy was a “sector of the future” and would continue to contribute “at least 50%” of France’s electricity output.
Another member of Hollande’s Socialist Party, the MP Christian Bataille, says the plan to curb nuclear was hatched as a way of securing the backing of his Green coalition partners in parliament.
He describes nuclear power as the country’s “only national energy source”.
French nuclear power was the ultimate “grand project” forged in the 1970s and designed to make France as energy-independent as possible. Its reactors have been churning out low-carbon energy at some of the lowest prices in Europe for decades – helping, supporters say, to make French industry competitive.
At a fashionable Parisian street market I spoke to a number of shoppers, with differing views on nuclear power.
“People need energy, and nuclear is necessary to live,” one smartly dressed woman told me. But others had been unsettled by Fukushima and were concerned about both safety and nuclear waste. “It is very useful but it is very dangerous,” said one elderly man. He would prefer renewable energy, he said, but recognised it would take time to switch.
Professor Tubiana says by concentrating on nuclear power France has slipped behind on rival technologies like wind, solar and biomass and it must now take steps to catch up quickly.
“We were very good 20 years ago with solar concentration,” she says. “We are now nowhere. We concentrated all our efforts on one side.”
If France does not create a market for renewable energy it will never be competitive in the sector, she says – while its nuclear industry could still be powerful even in 2050, even under the Hollande plan.
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