France's nuclear program sputters

France's nuclear power program is losing energy. In many ways it is a victim of its own success. When most of the world groped for a response to the Arab oil embargo in 1973, the French calmly launched a crash nuclear program. During the next decade, the French nuclear industry became a world leader, constructing 38 power plants on schedule, within budget.

Today France has more nuclear energy than it needs.

Officials of the state-owned electricity company, Electricit'e de France (EDF), estimate France could have excess capacity totaling eight nuclear plants by 1990.

For this reason, the government recently cut back its ambitious nuclear construction program. Only one new reactor is to be built annually in 1985 and '86, compared with some six plants a year during the 1970s and two each in the past two years. Plans to build four to six plutonium-fueled ``breeder'' plants have been abandoned.

``Any government would have been forced to make the same decision,'' said Ariane Revol of the Ministry of Energy. ``French industry must move into other, more profitable areas.''

The nuclear industry disagrees. Framatome, the semi-private company that has supplied virtually all of the country's nuclear high-tech material, wants at least two nuclear plants to be built each year. Spokesman Gilbert Darmon says the planned cutback could mean the loss of one-third of the nuclear industry's 175,000 jobs.

``We have developed the world's foremost nuclear capacity,'' Mr. Darmon argues. ``The cutbacks risk destroying it.''

Potential exports are at risk. France has sold plants abroad only to South Korea and South Africa. Although financing difficulties make more sales questionable, orders are being discussed with China, Egypt, Belgium, Finland, Turkey, and Israel. Darmon says a strong export market could develop by 1990, and that by 2000 France will have to begin replacing its own plants.

``There is no nuclear market now,'' he admits. ``But we must be ready for the future.''

The government could not wait for that uncertain future. Each new nuclear plant costs about $1 billion, and EDF needs relief from the $20 billion debt it accumulated largely as a result of its frenzied nuclear construction.

``If we built more plants, electricity prices would have to go up,'' says the Energy Ministry's Mr. Revol.

A similar analysis has hurt the prestigious Super-Ph'enix fast-breeder program. Super-Ph'enix plants use plutonium, the radioactive substance used in nuclear weapons, to produce more nuclear fuel than they consume in generating electricity. The Super-Ph'enix reactor at Creys-Malville, near Lyon, is scheduled to enter service at the end of 1985.

But the Super-Ph'enix costs about twice as much as a classical reactor. The government has canceled plans for additional reactors and is searching for new European partners to continue fast-breeder research.

Despite all these worries, almost everyone involved in France's nuclear debate is enthusiastic about the program. They point out that nuclear power supplies some 55 percent of France's electricity needs and knocks some $6 billion a year off the oil bill.

Nuclear-generated electricity has enabled France to offer the lowest utility charges in Europe. EDF exports nuclear electricity to six European neighbors.

The French public also has become enamored of nuclear energy. No strong ecology movement has developed. Even President Franois Mitterrand quickly forgot his misgivings about nuclear energy. After a brief nuclear freeze, he ordered construction resumed. -- 30 -- {et

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