France has the world's second-largest nuclear power program. As Japan's nuclear catastrophe lurches from bad to worse, the French government is fighting to avoid a meltdown in popular support for atomic energy.
France has high hopes of building industrial strength through nuclear power
Japan's ongoing nuclear catastrophe has had an immediate impact on the German government's unpopular nuclear policies.
But in neighboring France, which gets nearly four-fifths of its energy from nuclear power, the political establishment is pushing back, determined to reassure the public that its nuclear facilities are secure.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said ending nuclear power was "out of the question."
Sarkozy would like his word to be final
His country's 58 nuclear reactors make France the second-biggest user of nuclear power in the world after the United States, where 104 reactors deliver 20 percent of the country's electricity.
Sarkozy on Tuesday sought to reassure the public by pointing to a 40 billion dollar reactor deal with Abu Dhabi which fell through in December of 2009, amid recriminations that it was too costly.
"If we have lost some bids, this is because we are more expensive. And if we are more expensive this is because we are the safest," he was quoted as saying by the daily newspaper Le Parisien.
For all of Sarkozy's bravado, not all in his government share his level of confidence.
French Industry Minister Eric Besson, who described the situation in Japan as an "accident" and "not yet a catastrophe" on Saturday, has been forced into near-daily revisions of his position on events due to a deteriorating situation in Japan.
Charlotte Mijeon, a spokeswoman for the Sortir du Nucleaire network of anti-nuclear activist, called Besson's reaction "shocking."
"To say this is an accident, but not a catastrophe… at what point does one consider something a catastrophe?"
"To suggest this isn't the end of the atomic energy industry, but an opportunity - for us that's shameless," she said, referring to Sarkozy.
French anti-nuclear groups, who say public debate in France had been invigorated by the events in Japan, believe that at least one French nuclear plant is vulnerable to a Fukushima-like catastrophe.
They point to the Fessenheim plant situated near the Rhine river in a seismic zone downstream from a hydroelectric dam. It's the country's oldest nuclear plant and began operation in 1977.
Yet despite the country's decades-old attachment to nuclear energy, Mijeon says there's no reason why France could not end its dependency.
"We were able to build this enormous atomic energy program in just a few decades," she said.
"We can also take it apart. Scenarios have already been proposed. Some take five years, others take 20 years. It's just a question of political will."
Seeing Chernobyl was enough for the Italians, who now buy nuclear power from France
Role as exporter doubted
Mijeon dismissed the possibility that France might end up an exporter of inexpensive nuclear energy to non-nuclear neighbors if Europe's energy markets are properly opened.
The country already sells nuclear energy to Italy, which ended its nuclear program in response to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
"Nuclear energy won't remain inexpensive for long, because enormous repairs will be needed as nuclear power plants age," she said. "And then money will also be needed to tear them down and dispose of their nuclear waste."
France began developing its civilian nuclear program as a response to oil shortages in the 1970's and currently has one reactor under construction.
Author: Gerhard Schneibel
Editor: Nathan Witkop