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Nuclear? Oui merci!

March 16, 2011

With 58 nuclear reactors, France is a country overwhelmingly dependent on nuclear energy to provide electricity. Could the disaster in Japan change France's love affair with nuclear energy?

Pool storage as part of nuclear waste process
Facilities like this one in La Hague are common in FranceImage: AP

Despite a looming nuclear crisis in Japan and widespread calls for European governments to reassess their policies on nuclear technology, France has firmly stated that shutting down reactors is out of the question.

"It is not good to decide the future of France's energy policy under the influence of our emotion at what's happening in Japan," said the Socialists' environment spokeswoman Laurence Rossignol.

Unlike most other European countries, France is overwhelmingly dependent on nuclear energy for electricity. More than a third of the country's power comes from 58 reactors, a number surpassed only by that of the United States.

France's nuclear program is also a symbol of economic pride - like the TGV high-speed train - stemming from elite technical schools and effective government direction.

La Hague nuclear plant
Only the United States has more reactors than FranceImage: picture alliance/HB Verlag

Not only is nuclear energy a major contributor domestically, but France also plans to turn its nuclear expertise into a major export industry over the coming years.

Nuclear referendum

At some point before the 2012 presidential election, France will hold a referendum on the future of nuclear power.

The idea of a referendum was introduced by Franco-German ecologist Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a notion that was eagerly supported by Green Party leaders.

"We are asking our Socialist Party partners to co-sign a bill which, if it becomes law, will allow us to leave nuclear power behind in 25 years time," said Green Party parliamentarian Yves Cochet.

This seems very unlikely, but the Socialists' Secretary General Martine Aubry did call for an audit of France's nuclear power plants to phase out older, more dangerous plants.

A nuclear love affair

There is a growing consensus, that France's oldest operational reactor, Fessenheim, near the German border, should be wound down and closed.

French MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit at microphone
Daniel Cohn-Bendit suggested a referendum on nuclear powerImage: AP

The French state electricity company also admitted last December that 10 of the country's 58 nuclear plants did not meet safety requirements when it came to earth tremors.

Minor earthquakes do occasionally take place in France, and officials have said there is a risk that a panel, wall or staircase could collapse if there was a quake.

An audit, however, does not mean envisaging the end to France's love affair with nuclear power.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy reaffirmed that France has no intent to abandon nuclear power. This position was summed up by right-wing commentator Eric Zemmour who, paraphrasing the old German anti-nukes slogan 'Atomkraft? Nein, Danke!' (atomic power – no thanks), entitled his editorial 'Nucleaire - Oui, Merci!'"

Author: John Laurenson / cn
Editor: Nancy Isenson