Japan crisis rattles even pro-nuclear France
Nuclear power has been something of a sacred cow in France. But the Japan nuclear crisis in the wake of last week's earthquake and tsunami is raising concern even here.
Despite French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s statement that departing from reliance on nuclear energy is “out of the question,” the ongoing drama around Japan’s Fukushima reactors is, for the first time, causing some tremors in a nuclear industry often described as a state religion here.Skip to next paragraph
Fears from Japan that even the safest reactors are not protected from forces of nature are checking French hopes for a world “nuclear renaissance” as a form of clean energy.
With Germany’s Angela Merkel today ordering the shutdown of seven older reactors, Mr. Sarkozy is now also talking about the importance of renewable energy. The French nuclear chief is in Brussels attending what may be the creation of a new EU nuclear energy administration. And for the first time France’s nascent antinuclear activists are getting airtime and the Socialist party is asking for a major nuclear review.
France's nuclear agenda
No country in the world, let alone in Europe, is more pro-nuclear than France. The republic’s energy self-reliance is based on fission and some 75 percent of French electricity is nuclear. There are 58 facilities, with two under construction – far outstripping Britain (18 reactors) and Germany (17). Every French person is said to live within 150 miles of a reactor. Only the United States has more nuclear reactors (104) than France.
The $50 to $60 billion industry includes French giants like Areva that compete with Westinghouse for nuclear contracts in China, Russia, and India, and are a point of pride. Those three nations have issued statements they plan to continue with nuclear power.
But Fukushima is “changing the discussion in France,” says Bruno Chareyon of a nonpartisan group that monitors radiation levels. “Nuclear questions have never been discussed and [looking at Japan] the people want to discuss it like anywhere else in the world. Nuclear plants are not designed to handle all kinds of problems, like a plane crash. They can resist earthquakes but not the biggest quakes.”
French energy officials first described explosions at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power station as an “accident” not a “catastrophe" – even as the French Embassy in Tokyo advised French nationals to leave the city for three days. But with the No. 2 reactor at Fukushima facing a full or partial meltdown, Andre-Claude Lacoste, president of the French nuclear safety authority, rated the disaster a 6 on a scale of 7. The IAEA originally rated it as a 4.