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.

Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters
A resident with a bicycle walks in an area hit by an earthquake and tsunami in Sendai, northeastern Japan on March 15. French energy officials first described explosions at the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power station as an 'accident' not a 'catastrophe' – and the French Embassy in Tokyo advised French nationals to leave the city for three days.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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.

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.

France is so pro-nuclear that public discussion over the issue is constrained and the antinuclear sentiment that does exist is a shadow of what it is in Germany, Italy, or Austria.

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.

Still, he said at a Paris news conference today, that the Fukushima was worse than the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown in the US.

French Prime Minister François Fillon told the French Parliament that, "The French nuclear industry is one of the safest, one of the most monitored, and one of the most transparent in the world."

Areva’s third-generation Evolutionary Power Reactor (EPR), which are planned but not completed in India, Finland, and the US will face questions and review. In the wake of the Japan tsunami that knocked out the back up diesel engines that pump water into the reactor core, India's nuclear agency, which has several EPRs on order for the state of Maharashtra, announced a review today of the 1,600-megawatt reactor that is designed get higher yields out of smaller amount of a uranium-plutonium blend called MOX.

As Japanese workers struggled Monday to overcome blocked vents in order to flood Fukushima's No. 2 reactor with seawater, Areva’s CEO Anne Lauvergeon insisted that "Japan is not going through a nuclear disaster…. Of course I am worried. We are facing a very significant natural disaster in Japan with an earthquake followed by a giant tsunami, but it is not a nuclear disaster.”

Areva market shares dropped 9 percent Monday.

Yukiya Amano, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), yesterday insisted the Fukushima reactors are not comparable to the Chernobyl reactor whose core melted in 1986, saying, “The development of this accident into one like Chernobyl is very unlikely."

In a follow-up statement Tuesday, Mr. Amano said the containment vessel for the No. 2 reactor may be compromised and called on Japanese authorities for "more information" and details.

Antinuclear voices heard

But fears of radiation levels in Japan – and of further aftershocks and tremors, of ongoing fires, evacuations, and an inconclusive outcome – have given standing to nuclear opponents in France that are often marginalized in the public and media.

"Nuclear energy, as it is, cannot be the response to our energy needs,” argued Nicolas Hulot, a popular ecology leader and possible Green Party candidate for president. “Once more we can witness the proof that we cannot link the fate of humankind to a mere tragic Russian roulette."

Antinuclear advocates here claim France has a history of covering up accidents, leaks, and design flaws. In 2008, at a plant in Tricastin in the southeast, uranium effluence leaked into a local river with plant authorities waiting 14 hours to inform the public.

The Catholic daily La Croix today acknowledges that nuclear power will continue in France, but called for fairer discussion about it: "national choices [on energy] must gain in transparency. Facing the inescapable hazards of [nuclear] energy – long term waste management, accidents, terrorism – to act as if decisions can continue to be made in muffled fashion … is irresponsible.”

Sarkozy stated Monday, “We must keep our heads cool, departing from nuclear energy is out of the question, we must maintain France's self-reliance in energy, we must maintain our policy to diversify renewable energies and … to reduce energy consumption. [But] it is necessary to defend French knowhow in the nuclear field.”

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