Recent accidents at two French nuclear power plants have stimulated a potentially explosive debate over France's dependence on nuclear power. The first accident occurred in the experimental Creys-Malville Superph'enix commercial breeder reactor, east of Lyon on the Rh^one River. Sodium has been leaking at the reactor for two weeks from a container into the river. The second accident took place Sunday in Pierrelatte, also on the Rh^one. Uranium hexachloride escaped from a faulty valve, slightly injuring seven technicians who brought the leak under control.
In a rare sign of agreement, both the right-wing National Front Party and France's major socialist trade union have called for a shutdown of Superph'enix. Government officials said such a move was premature.
Such opposition is new here. Although most other European countries have slowed their nuclear programs in the face of strong public opposition, nuclear programs traditionally have enjoyed a consensus in France. Nuclear weapons assure France's defense. Nuclear power freed France from dependence on oil imports.
France has 47 nuclear power plants, and nuclear energy supplies about 70 percent of French electricity. By the next decade, that figure is expected to rise to 80 percent.
But new opinion polls show that a third of the French population oppose nuclear power. Many of the questions are economic. With oil prices low, nuclear power has become expensive. For this reason, construction has slowed from four reactors annually in the early 1980s to a single one this year.
The Superph'enix plant receives special criticism. It is an experimental type of plant which regenerates uranium, and is particularly expensive. Despite the assertion by Jean-Pierre Capron, head of the Atomic Energy Commissisariat, that the Superph'enix program would be continued, some question whether the ambitious French nuclear program has reached a turning point.