Paris — France's love affair with nuclear power persists at a time when disenchantment has set in elsewhere in Western Europe. In West Germany, for instance, nuclear advocates are trying to keep a low profile these days. They want to avoid any action that will lead to a reorganization and strengthening of formidable German antinuclear groups. The Bonn government already is having too many problems with antiwar demonstrators to risk giving protesters another target to aim at.
An antinuclear mood is also growing in Britain. There, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a brief valiant effort to launch an ambitious program based on pressure-water reactors (PWR), similar to those used in France, only to have her wings clipped by Parliament.
But the continued French interest in nuclear power has taken many people here , especially the ecologists, by surprise. Under former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, French Socialists were the most formidable critics of an overreliance on nuclear energy.
When the Socialists came into office last spring, France's nuclear program was expected to be an early casualty. But that has not proven to be the case. As a former engineer at France's government-owned nuclear company, Framatome, put it, ''France has become an hostage to nuclear power. It can no longer escape.''
The previous administration had envisaged an ambitious program that would base at least 75 percent of France's electricity on nuclear power by the end of the decade, and called for the construction of at least nine more nuclear reactors.
Paul Quiles, a Socialist deputy in the National Assembly charged with preparing a report for the Assembly's debate on nuclear power, recommended that only four reactors be built. His recommendations were overruled by the government which asked for six. The Communists in the National Assembly wanted seven. The government won by 331 to 67 votes.
At a quick glance, it looked as though the Socialists were cutting back on nuclear power, but in fact the reduction in the number of reactors did not represent a change in policy. It was simply taking into account recent studies which have shown that France has been using less electricity than originally expected. Since a 1,300 megawatt reactor costs about $1.2 billion, the saving was a happy surprise.
The other parts of France's nuclear program are continuing almost as though there had been no change in government at all. Construction of France's fast-breeder reactor, Super-Phenix, is in full swing and construction of a new waste-reprocessing plant at Cap de la Hague near Cherbourg will begin next March.
The major reason for the French Socialist about-face on nuclear power is economic. France stands to earn about $10 billion on contracts it has already signed to reprocess nuclear waste for foreign countries.
Now that the Socialists are in power they are also finding that while criticisms of nuclear power tend to be intellectual and abstract, the issue of unemployment and the 150,000 jobs that the French nuclear industry represents, are emotional and immediate. Local towns people and officials at the French town of Braude et Saint Louis where four reactors are being built, even managed to get a petition with 1,000 names requesting construction of two more reactors, so that there would be more jobs. The local prefect suggested building a bridge instead.
Opponents of nuclear power charge that the Socialist government like its predecessor is simply deferring the bill for today's energy so that it will eventually have to be paid by tomorrow's generations.
Even French atomic energy officials admit that France's uranium reserves of around 120,000 tons will begin to dwindle seriously by the year 2000. France will be using 13,000 to 14,000 tons a year by then, and will be just as dependent on foreign uranium as it is on oil now, unless it can get its fast-breeder program to work.
Fast-breeders create plutonium, which can be reburned as fuel in the core of the reactor, but their operation depends on being able to reprocess fuel.
So far the French have been having serious trouble with their reprocessing operations.
The system they are using was designed for low radioactivity gas graphite reactors, the fuel in the currently used PWR reactors is so radioactive that it decomposes the solvents in the reprocessing circuit. The waste created by fast breeders is three times more radioactive than PWR waste, and a number of scientists here feel the reprocessing system won't be able to mandle it.
The French PWR program isn't in all that good shape either. France's atomic energy commission maintains that nuclear produced electricity costs about 3 cents a kilowatt compared to nearly 10 cents a kilowatt for oil-produced electricity. But the nuclear price is based on amortizing the cost of reactors over 30 years. No PWR reactor has so far functioned more than 18 years.
Recently US authorities have found that 13 American PWR reactors including the Connecticut Yankee may have to be shut down because radiation has weakened the reactor shell. Similar problems are turning up in France, where all the 900 and 1300-megawatt reactors have turned out to have cracks because of a manufacturing error. They probably won't explode. But they may have to be shut down after only a few years.