French government dithers as costly nuclear reactors age
Safety authority chief Chevet warns France is wrong to think accidents only happen to others
Anti-nuclear activists on the “Europe” bridge between Kehl, southwestern Germany, and Strasbourg, eastern France, remember the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. Photograph: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images
Sweden alerted the French government to the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl two days after it occurred. The priority of French authorities was to prevent panic, perhaps because France produces 75 per cent of its electricity in nuclear power plants, the highest share in the world.
On April 28th, 1986, the evening news presenter on public television reported in all seriousness that a high-pressure zone from the Azores would block radiation at the French border.
“From a public health point of view, there is no risk,” the deputy head of the health ministry’s radiation protection service said. “Cloud stopped at the border,” was Libération newspaper’s mocking, front-page summation of the government’s position.
Decades of investigations, accusations and lawsuits over alleged misinformation followed. The true effects of Chernobyl in France were never fully elucidated.
The French comforted themselves with the knowledge that their plants, unlike Chernobyl, are encased in concrete. Likewise, when the nuclear accident occurred at Fukushima in 2011, the French said their country was not threatened by powerful earthquakes or tsunamis.
“This reasoning is wrong,” Pierre-Franck Chevet, the president of the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), said in an unusually forthright interview with Le Monde today.
“We could have earthquakes or floods greater than expected in France, acts of malevolence against a plant,” Chevet said.
“To think it only happens to others means you’re not accepting the consequences . . . Japan was caught by surprise . . . We could be too.”
But it has neither the means to prolong their service nor the €74 billion the EU Commission says it will cost to dismantle them in coming decades.
One lesson of Chernobyl was that a nuclear accident does not spare one’s neighbours. Switzerland recently filed a lawsuit over the Bugey plant in eastern France, for “deliberately endangering the lives of others”.
On Sunday, hundreds of people, most of them German, demonstrated against Fessenheim, France’s oldest, 39-year-old nuclear reactor, in Alsace. The German government has long demanded it be shut down.
To satisfy intermittent allies in the Green party, President François Hollande promised in 2012 that he would close Fessenheim in 2016. At his annual environmental conference yesterday, Hollande promised to sign the closure order this year.
But Fessenheim will remain in service at least until 2018. It cannot be shut down until the new European pressurised reactor (EPR) at Flamanville, on the English Channel, comes online. Flamanville is six years behind schedule and €7.2 billion over budget.
A nine-year delay and €5.2 billion cost overrun on the EPR that France is building for Finland has poisoned relations, with the Finnish power company suing the French contractor Areva. The future of a French-built EPR at Hinkley Point, England, is also in question.
On the strength of the December 2015 agreement at the COP21 climate conference, environment minister Ségolène Royal frequently refers to France’s “environmental excellence”.
Yet only 14 per cent of French electricity comes from renewable sun, wind, marine and biomass energy, below the European average and well below France’s goal of 23 per cent by 2020.
The 2015 law on energy transition promised to reduce France’s reliance on nuclear power from 75 per cent to 50 per cent by 2025. But until renewable energy provides 40 per cent of electricity, Royal said yesterday, France will not start scaling down its use of nuclear power.
“I’m not going to cut off French people’s electricity to satisfy anti-nuclear ideologues,” Royal said, calling anti- nuclear groups “obsessed”.
Royal was supposed to announce a multiyear energy programme detailing plans for transition from nuclear to renewable energy, including the schedule for decommissioning aging nuclear plants, by late 2015. A second, February deadline also passed.
Hollande yesterday promised the plan by July. Some expect it won’t materialise before the May 2017 presidential election.
“The government seems to constantly postpone decisions it could take today,” L’Opinion newspaper said. “This procrastination is the rule for everything concerning the nuclear programme.”