France’s Road to a Nuclear-Free Future May be Closed

New Government Wants to Radically Reduce Nuclear Use

Ken Silverstein | Dec 02, 2012


The French government’s adamance that it will be reducing its use of nuclear energy is hitting some self-imposed dead ends. 

French President Francois Hollande defeated the incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy in May, in part by promising to redefine how the country burns energy and by specifically saying that he would cut the mix of nuclear generation from 75 percent to 50 percent, by 2020. How so? Well, the balance won’t be coming from rich shale gas deposits that have are off-limits because of concerns over fracking. And, they won’t be derived from coal, which is nearly a depleted resource there.

The goal, says Hollande, is to increase the use of renewable energies from its current base of 13 percent. France will focus on boosting the use of next-generation cellulosic bio-fuels that include woody chips and switchgrass. Hydro is its most abundant green fuel while wind and solar are negligible. The French government’s overall objective is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent in 2020 and by 40 percent in 2030.

But he can’t plot the course alone. That’s why Hollande is now meeting with stakeholders from all over the energy map. Right now, they are gathering and collecting information. By April, they will have assimilated that research so that it can be prepared for inclusion in a new energy proposal.

“The Fessenheim plant which is the oldest in our country, will be closed at the end of 2016 in conditions that will guarantee the supply needs of the region... and safeguard all jobs,” say Hollande, as quoted in a French news outlet. The country operates 58 nuclear reactors. Twenty-four of them would be retired by 2025.

After the Japanese accident, France set out to critically evaluate its nuclear energy program. French regulators said that all of the units there passed muster and that none of them should be closed. However, its Nuclear Safety Authority says that stronger safety measures are needed to prevent the spread of radiation in the event of an accident. Operators will also have to outline how emergency back-up generators will deploy -- the mechanism used to cool down the spent fuel rods that have been removed from the reactor’s core. 

Shale Gas Out

Critics say that the billions it will cost to make such upgrades is money that could otherwise be spent developing the country’s green energy program. But France, like all other nations, is striving to meet an ever-increasing need for electricity with a plentiful resource and in a way that minimizes greenhouse gases -- the foundations supporting the nuclear movement.

“The existing nuclear fleet, together with hydro, provides a base for competitive French electricity,” says EDF Chief Executive Henri Proglio, before the French National Assembly, in a UPI story. He goes on to say that French energy prices are 35 percent less than the European average because its nuclear fleet.

The Hollande-led government may be tying its own hands. France has already issued permits to natural gas developers to pursue shale deposits. But under new laws, those rights would be revoked and any company that violates the statute would be penalized. Companies say that they will fight that new law, noting that they have already spent untold sums to gain such access and to buy the technologies that make it possible -- and safe.

Producers are citing a report that says the banning of shale gas would be harmful to the French economy. That analysis says that France potentially has some of the most lucrative shale-gas deposits in Europe. It says that before fracking is to occur, environmental impact statements must be completed. The study, written mostly by engineers, also says that the technique must be improved, suggesting that the process begin slowly and only advance once the citizenry feels assured.

“In the current form, no one can say that gas and shale exploration through hydraulic drilling, the only technique known today, is not exempt from posing great health and environmental risks,” counters Hollande, in the French paper.

The new French president has painted himself in a corner: He has vowed to reduce the nation’s most plentiful resource, nuclear energy. But he has also declared that one of the most critical fuels there will be off-limits, shale gas. The most promising road ahead, he insists, is the development of renewable energy.

Will it work? No, given that the French nuclear sector employs a reported 400,000 union workers and that nuclear energy helps provide an enviable standard of living there. Nevertheless, a good, healthy debate is what’s needed so that the French people can make their own determination.

EnergyBiz Insider has been awarded the Gold for Original Web Commentary presented by the American Society of Business Press Editors. The column is also the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has been honored as one of MIN’s Most Intriguing People in Media.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

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France and Mr. Hollande

Ken:   I have followed the France energy (electricity and fossil fuels) situation for years (started in 1976) and find myself virtually doubled up with laughter at the situation Mr Hollande et al have painted for themselves.

Where are the practical prone grown-ups.  The country has a known set of options and a cadre of skilled people that can implement those known options.   Ideologues do not make good practical leaders.