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Hollande may not like it, but French nuclear is full steam ahead

Despite a purported commitment to renewables, France’s new President will likely be outmaneuvered by the country’s nuclear industry. AAP

Hollande may not like it, but French nuclear is full steam ahead

Despite a purported commitment to renewables, France’s new President will likely be outmaneuvered by the country’s nuclear industry. AAP

The recent meeting of European Energy Ministers has exposed a Germany-France rift on the role of nuclear power. Post-Fukushima, Germany is investing heavily in solar power; so is Italy. But a French spokesperson said efforts after 2020 must stay neutral on technologies – meaning they want nuclear power to be central to the mix. France has the support (for varied reasons) of the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic.

President-elect François Hollande’s election manifesto calls for a reduction of nuclear’s contribution to domestic energy consumption to 50% by 2025. He says he supports “heavy” investment in renewable energies and their affiliated industries. And the Ministers' meeting confirmed renewables would account for at least 55% of EU final energy consumption by 2050.

These milestones will prove a tall order in France. Realistically, they are in the utopian category.

The status of French nuclear

The status of nuclear power in France is well outlined on the World Nuclear Association’s website. Over 75% of domestic electricity consumption comes from nuclear power. This dominance is the product of a strategic move in the 1970s; the oil shock had compounded France’s long term (and continuing) dependence on oil imports. But nuclear energy is also the child of France’s force de frappe – in the context of the Cold War, how could one be a great nation without nuclear weaponry?

France currently has 58 reactors at 19 sites. More, France is the world’s largest net electricity exporter, with exports particularly to Italy and the UK.

French citizens may be uncomfortable with nuclear power, but that’s unlikely to affect its expansion. AAP

France employs an integrated package – reactor manufacture, fuel and waste processing and technical consultancy - domestically, but it also exports it. Last February, France and the UK signed a joint agreement on civil nuclear energy. France’s Areva will supply the reactor cores for a dramatic expansion in British nuclear capacity over the next decade. Perhaps the British deal will offset France’s long term contractual arrangements with the Japanese nuclear sector; those arrangements are possibly now worthless.

The nuclear establishment: immune from political influence

Presiding over the French nuclear network is a nuclear establishment. Areva (90% state-owned), a vertically integrated conglomerate, is a “national champion” par excellence (in spite of its recent blunderings and reported massive losses).

Electricité de France (85% state-owned) is synonymous with nuclear-generated electricity. As with Westinghouse and General Electric in the US, EdF pushed a consumerist culture that dramatically expanded electricity usage to cement the profitability of nuclear infrastructure. EdF’s motif became “Toute electrique! Toute nucléaire!”.

As the Americans have their military-industrial-intelligence establishment, immune from democratic and political influence, so too with the French nuclear establishment. It is a state within the state. This establishment is paying not the slightest attention to whatever formal commitments the French government makes to Europe concerning renewable energy targets. For the establishment, “renewable” (save for existing hydro and a token commitment to wind power) means the reprocessing and use of nuclear waste.

Ironically, EdF is now involved in solar power generation in Israel. But apparently the sun does not shine in metropolitan France.

The “nucléocrates” are committed to third-generation EPR reactors (European pressurised water reactors), with the first begun at Flamanville in 2007. Smaller EPRs are planned for export to developing countries. Simultaneously in 2006, France committed to Generation IV fast breeder reactors.

French nuclear company EdF says nuclear incidents are a matter for internal experts, not the courts. AAP

As the World Nuclear Association website highlights, Generation IV reactors are seen as a key vehicle to “increase France’s competitiveness”. The government handed over, in 2009, €1 billion to CEA, the French Atomic Energy Commission, to further the cause. This complements other substantial subsidies to the sector. Traditional industries (steel, autos and so on) are facing further retrenchments. Civilian nuclear energy is apparently the new industrial force de frappe.

Storage, safety and sickness - can anything threaten nuclear’s success?

The nucléocrates have also planned a massive deep underground storage facility in the clay soils of the commune of Bure, to store high level and long life waste. That the locals are opposed to the dump is inconsequential. Hollande himself has long played the NIMBY card, decrying the prospect of a large scale dump in his own power base, the picturesque Department of Corrèze.

Nicholas Sarkozy has been uncritically supportive of the status quo. During the recent Presidential campaign, Sarkozy lampooned François Hollande’s post-Fukushima proposition of immediately closing down France’s most dilapidated reactor at Fessenheim. Where is the beach in Alsace?, quipped Sarkozy. But the “joke” was on him. Fessenheim is located on a seismic zone and adjacent to the Grand Canal d’Alsace, whose flooding would be catastrophic.

Fesssenheim, with other older reactors, will close when new reactors come on stream. But the lethargy is representative of how the establishment downplays safety concerns. The line is that France is world’s best practice on risk control – Fukushima is irrelevant to them. So also, presumably, is a recent study by the French research institute INSERM that found increased rates of leukemia in children living within a three mile radius of French nuclear power plants.

In January and March 2010, there were separate incidents of radioactive material release at Golfech. The safety agency L'Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN) gave EdF the customary slap on the wrist. But, given 2006 legal facilitation, green groups took EdF to court. Outrageous, said EdF counsel – this is an internal matter, to be resolved amongst experts.

If Australia wants to go nuclear, it will need to deal with waste; we struggle with even small amounts from Lucas Heights. Peter Hindmarsh

At Penly in April, there was another “above normal” leak of radioactive water. The ASN classed the incident at the top level 1 on a scale of 7. Totally minor, retorted EdF.

And in February, a crucial pressure sensor at Paluel (100 kilometres from Great Britain) became faulty. The EdF delayed notifying the ASN for three days, and hooked up another sensor “temporarily” to monitor temperatures (it was still there two months later) instead of closing down the reactor as the rules demand (a reactor closed down costs the operator €1 million a day). EdF will die in the ditch over nuclear-generated electricity.

Hollande may love renewables, but democracy can’t win this one

Hollande merely has a popular mandate; of what import is this against the real powers in France? The path to implementing his own and the European agenda is formidable. Michel Rocard, Parti Socialiste grandee and Prime Minister from 1988-91, fulminated in March that abandoning nuclear energy would destroy economic growth and generate civil war. In November 2011, Henri Proglio, CEO/Chairman of EdF and exemplary corporate heavyweight, went hysterical over the PS-Green accord.

The Greens want a dramatic reversal of nuclear power dependence. They also want Flamanville closed. But in the accord Hollande prevailed on both counts. So where is the mettle to achieve even his mild agenda?

Meanwhile, construction of the Generation III “flagship” at Flamanville (as with the first such reactor in Finland) is seriously behind schedule and seriously over budget. Two workers have died and a crucial cement pour has been botched. Project management has been chaotic. The genuine risky business lies ahead.

The French story has nothing to offer pro-nuclear advocates on Australian terrain (unless they are uranium miners exporting to France’s customers). Its massive nuclear infrastructure supposedly has the technology stitched up, yet it’s still leaking at the seams.

At its best, French nuclear infrastructure is an integrated package: it includes fuel processing, waste processing and storage. One can’t have nuclear electricity generation in Australia without accommodating the massive business associated with this entire cycle. But to date, we haven’t managed to accommodate even the trivial byproducts generated from Lucas Heights.

Meanwhile, we get to watch dispassionately the inevitable schism that is unfolding in Europe regarding the commitment or lack thereof to genuinely renewable energy sources.