France believes the Western world's energy supply situation is so critical that a speed-up of plans to convert from oil to nuclear energy and coal has become imperative.
Says French Industry Minister Andre Giraud: "By the year 2000, I hope that 15 percent of the West's energy will be generated by nuclear means." Mr. Giraud's remarks came at a recent briefing in Washington following talks with US Energy Secretary Charles W. Duncan Jr. and World Bank presidentm Robert S. McNamara.
Mr. Giraud, an engineer, has led the development of France's advanced nuclear energy program. He says he believes the results of a worldwide survey ordered by President Carter in 1977 on ways to check the spread of nuclear weapons has "destroyed" American misconceptions about this -- such as objections to the use of fast breeder reactors to generate electric power.
He recalled that France was supporting US policy toward Iran in the hostage crisis by "not buying one drop of Iranian oil" since the crisis began. French contracts for nuclear power installations in Iran have been "interrupted" though not canceled, he said.
When it appeared in 1978 that Pakistan was on the way to acquiring nuclear-weapons technology, France halted a deal to sell Pakistan a reprocessing plant and offered another type of plant that would not produce weapons-grade plutonium or uranium, Mr. Giraud recalled. (Pakistan refused the French offer and went ahead instead with plans to acquire enriched uranium.)
The French minister predicted that a report, soon to be published, on President Carter's International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE), would vindicate European views on nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, as opposed to US views.
INFCE, in which about 45 countries took part, sought safer ways to process nuclear fuel. Used, or "spent," fuel contains unburned uranium, radioactive waste products, and, especially, plutonium, which is usable for bombs.
If the spent fuel is not reprocessed, the unburned uranium is lost for further use and plutonium is not available for fast breeder reactors -- which "burn" plutonium, but also produce it. The waste remains to be disposed of, a problem still unsolved in the United States.
Since 1978, France has taken the lead in waste disposal by operating at Marcoule the first industrial-scale procedure to "glassify" or "vitrify" nuclear wastes. This reduces their volume for shipping and final storage under high-safety conditions.
Mr. Giraud said the French decision to hold up the reprocessing plant for Pakistan did not mean France now is committed not to export reprocessing technology.
He said France would fulfill a contract with Iraq to deliver an Osiris-type research reactor, which he insists is sageguarded against use for weapons development. The unit actually will be the second involved in the contract. The first was sabotaged before it could be shipped to Iraq -- possibly by Israeli agents, some think.
Since the INFCE survey and other data show other nations do not agree with US controls over enriched uranium fuel exports, or other US nonproliferation measures, what, Mr. Giraud, was asked, did France advocate to prevent more nations from joining the nuclear-weapons club?
"The uncertainties of world energy supplies," he replied "require us to reduce our dependence on Mideast oil imports." (French official figures say energy consumption in that country has increased only 7 percent since 1973, while economic activity has risen 18 percent and oil consumption has dropped 8 percent during the same period.)
"If we want to continue growth, we must use all possible alternatives, including nuclear energy and coal. If policies aimed at stopping proliferation [of weapons] halt development of nuclear energy, we are risking the peace of the world," because of the looming world energy crunch.
"Since we do need a safe method, France gives preference at every step in the fuel cycle to processes the most remote from weapons capability. We prefer proliferation-resistant processes, and we use them."
Mr Giraud said he had discussed with Secretary Duncan and several US senators the possibility of importing more US coal.