With 34 Reactors in At Risk Zones, France Wonders If It's Hostage to Nuclear Power


The nuclear plant in Tricastin, in Southeastern France. Photo: Dierk Schaefer under a Creative Commons License

The ongoing situation in Japan has reignited the debate in France over nuclear power, currently the source of 75% of the country's electricity. With an eye on the four at risk plants in Japan, ministers, politicians, activists and representatives of the nuclear industry have been furiously trading statistics, arguments and sound bites.

Those who have long opposed the use of nuclear power have been outspoken in the last few days, presenting the disaster in Japan as a cautionary tale. Cecile Duflot, the National Secretary of the French ecological party Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (whose website bears the headline: "Act Today to Not Be Radioactive Tomorrow") told Reuters: "The nuclear risk cannot realistically be mastered. We are hostages of nuclear power in our own country."
An anti-nuclear protest in Fessenheim, where the oldest nuclear plant in France is located. The banner on the building reads "Nuclear Kills the Future." Photo: sortirdunucleaire under a Creative Commons License
Voices of Protest

In Strasbourg, the association Stop Transports - Halte au Nucleaire has organized a protest for tomorrow to demand that the reactor at Fessenheim, the oldest in the country, be closed, reported the newspaper Liberation.

According to Le Figaro, 34 of the country's 58 nuclear power plants are located in "at risk" zones, vulnerable to either earthquakes (especially in the Alps) or tidal waves (along the Normandy coastline). It's worth noting, however, that the likelihood and severity of seismic activity even in those zones are significantly lower than in Japan, and that all of the nuclear reactors located on the coast are designated at at risk of flooding.

The country's track record of nuclear safety isn't perfect: in 1999, a nuclear center at Blayais, near the Atlantic coast, flooded after a severe storm, though the consequences were minimal. Rated a 2 (on a scale of 7) in terms of severity, the incident has been cited in the last few days as anti-nuclear protesters make their voices heard. The most recent level 2 incident? February 17, 2011.

Those in Power Stand Firm Behind Nuclear

There are at least as many voices and arguments defending nuclear power as attacking it. It allows the country to avoid using any fossil fuels to generate electricity, and there has never been a serious incident in France (and very few globally). President Nicolas Sarkozy said that despite the events in Japan, it is "out of the question" that the country will give up nuclear power, saying: "France is the country that has the safest nuclear sector." The opposition Socialist Party seems on board, announcing on Monday that it was not against the use of nuclear power, but that it would rather have more energy generated from renewable sources.

Andre-Claude Lacoste, President of the government agency l'Autorite de Surete Nucleaire, told Le Figaro:

The ASN's position is that one cannot absolutely guarantee that there will never be a nuclear accident. But we do everything to ensure that the probability of that occurrence and its consequences are as little as possible. It is not a hazard if we impose on ourselves draconian security measures and we enforce them.

The utility company Electricite de France (EDF), which operates all of the country's power plants (as well as the 25% of the electricity from other sources), insists that nuclear power is safe as long as proper security measures are taken. Philippe Sasseigne, its adjunct director of nuclear power, says that this is the case: "We have always worked with rigor and high standards, without waiting for a nuclear crisis."

In an editorial in Le Figaro today, journalist Yves Threard summarized the position of those who advocate for the controlled use of nuclear power: "The drama through which the Japanese are living should make us reflect. But beware of jumping to generalizing conclusions that condemn nuclear energy."

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More on Japan's nuclear crisis:
6 Important Questions About the Crisis at Japanese Nuclear Power Plants
Maps and Aerial Photos of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant
Watch Powerful NOAA Animation of Japan Tsunami Racing Across Pacific (Video)

Tags: France | Japan | Nuclear Power