A special French commission to investigate the feasibility of establishing a massive 5,200-megawatt nuclear power plant in Britany has declared itself in favor of the project -- despite strong and violent opposition from environmentalists and local residents.
If the government gives the project the go-ahead, as is expected, the four-reactor nuclear plant will be constructed on an uninhabited 350-acre site of extraordinary natural beauty at Plogoff along Britany s windswept and rugged Atlantic coastline.
Ever since the commission began its investigation at the end of January, the project has become a highly disputed test case for French nuclear policy.
Thousands of environmentalists from all over France, as well as locals, clashed on numerous occasions with riot police brought in to protect the investigators. The four municipalities immediately bordering the site refused to lend any assistance -- or their town halls -- to the authorities because of what they called the "one-sidedness" of the commission.
The three-man commission, which completed its investigation March 14 but only revealed its conclusion this week, justified its decision by pointing out that Britany only produces 6 percent of the electricity it consumes. A plant of this size, it argues, is therefore necessary to permit the region greater self-sufficiency.
The commission also claims that France's ambitious nuclear policy is not only supported by the government majority, but also by the Communist Party. Opponents, mainly the Socialist Party, the Breton Democratic Union, and environmental movements, therefore constitute a minority.
Following the 1974 oil crisis, France embarked on an full-scale nuclear program that is expected to furnish 70 percent of the country's electricity needs by 1985. "Nuclear energy at all costs," is how Industry Minister Andre Giraud termed it.
With present reactors representing only 15 percent of France's electricity supplies, the Electricite de France (EDF) is on average putting a new plant into operation every two months.
But much of the criticism that has arisen against France's nuclear policy is because of the government's overriding determination and impetuousness to push through its expansive program no matter what.
Hardly disguising their cynicism, locals in the Plogoff area like to remind one of Valery Giscard d'Estaing's 1974 presidential campaign promise while still a candidate that, were he to be elected, under no circumstances would he impose nuclear plants without consent of the local population.
The local population has not given its consent and feels totally ignored by Paris. "We will try to fight legally against the EDF in order to annul the project," said one opposition leader."If we fail, there will, I fear, be more violence."
Apart from stone throwing, the blocking of roads, and brutal confrontations with the police, protesters recently formed an agricultural association at Plogoff and bought some 50 acres of the land that would eventually have to be expropriated by the government for the plant's construction. By doing this, they hope to frustrate the project in the courts over the next few years.
Several weeks ago, a group of 90 nuclear researchers from Brittany accused the EDF of dissimulating the dangers of radioactivity and other forms of environmental pollution in a report made available to the commission investigating the Plogoff project.
According to the researchers, when asked by the EDF whether there were any dangers of radioactivity, they replied: "We don't know." The EDF in its report interpreted this as meaning "There are no dangers."
"No one can really know what the dangers are," said Yves Legal, Deputy Director of the College de France. "Not enough research has been done in that field to know the consequences."
But, Mr. Giraud maintains, "There is no technology without risks. We have progressed with giant steps and we are now ahead of all other countries. We did not make this choice purely out of pleasure. At present we are living with a Damocles sword over our heads, namely the possibility of a brutal cutoff in our oil supplies. Every time we open up another nuclear plant, I breathe a bit easier. No one can turn these taps off."
Some critics are not necessarily against a cautious and thoroughly controlled nuclear program, but in present circumstances, they feel, the government is acting irresponsibly.