Friday, 4 December 2009

France and the nuclear option

France generates 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power. But is its vision of an atomic-fuelled future flawed?

Robin Pagnamenta

Inside a cavernous hall at the La Hague nuclear plant, Lionel Gaiffe holds up a 20 cent coin and lets it glint in the sallow glow of the arc lights strung high above.
“This is the amount of high-level radioactive waste produced by every French citizen in a year — about 5 grams,” he says. Gaiffe — one of the plant’s directors — knows better than most. Beneath him lie circular plates concealing the world’s largest stockpile of high-level nuclear waste. Stacked in concrete chutes are 8,500 one-tonne steel canisters containing all the high-level waste produced during the 50 years of France’s civil nuclear programme. Inside a mixture of glass and sugar lies a black sludge of lethal isotopes; the by-products of nuclear fission. The stockpile is growing by two and a half canisters every day. Each one is so radioactive it would kill a human in seconds. They will remain toxic for 100,000 years.
This far-flung corner of Normandy offers a vivid glimpse into our energy future. France, where 58 nuclear reactors generate 78 per cent of all electricity, has squeezed more carbon from its economy than any G8 nation. At 6.4 tonnes per person per year, the average Frenchman emits less than a third of the carbon dioxide produced by an American and more than 30 per cent less than a Briton. So is the nuclear-powered Gallic model to cutting carbon a blueprint for others? Is La Hague the answer to our low-carbon dreams or a throwback to a 1960s atomic nightmare? First, the positives.
Just a few miles from La Hague, a forest of red cranes are towering above a sprawling construction site by the Channel. Here, at Flamanville, thousands of workers are building a vast concrete shell that will one day contain the world’s most powerful nuclear reactor. France has positioned its new Evolutionary Power Reactor, or EPR, as the most potent weapon in the battle against climate change. Designed to withstand a direct hit from a 747 jet, it will operate for 60 years and churn out 1,600 megawatts — enough electricity to power Manchester.

Flamanville is not due to enter service until 2012 but it is already the cornerstone of a grand project to export French nuclear technology. Amid concerns about climate change and energy security, France is at the vanguard of a nuclear revival. After years of post-Chernobyl stagnation, the number of reactors is set to grow from 435 in 31 countries now to 568 in 42 countries by 2020 — equivalent to one new reactor per month for the next decade. France wants to build at least a third of them. Britain plans to build ten by 2025 to increase nuclear generation from 13 to 25 per cent. It is possible they will all be the same design as Flamanville.
“We have a lot of experience, a lot of competence in the nuclear business,” says Bernard Salha, of EDF, the state-controlled company that owns a quarter of the UK’s power stations and plans to build four reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk.
Luc Oursel, France’s premier reactor salesman, is unsurprisingly upbeat. “We see more and more countries coming to us,” says the president of Areva NP, the world’s biggest nuclear reactor maker and developer of the EPR. “If Copenhagen is really ambitious then there will certainly be a big acceleration of nuclear power.” He says he has 23 provisional orders from Britain, Finland, the US and China, each worth more than four billion euros. With global energy demand set to grow by up to 50 per cent by 2030, opportunities are staggering. China alone wants a 10-fold increase in nuclear capacity — equivalent to 150 EPRs. India plans a 12-fold rise.
Bertrand Barre, one of the founders of state-run Areva, adds a short history of the French nuclear programme. In 1973, France was producing just 8 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, with the bulk coming from oil. Its limited natural resources meant it was overwhelmingly reliant on imports from the Middle East — a situation that became untenable when the oil shock hit that year. “Overnight, oil prices quadrupled. There was a public outcry for us to do something,” says Barre. The following year, France embarked on the boldest drive into nuclear power in history, with plans to open six reactors a year. While the programme was hugely expensive, it was an engineering success. By the late 1990s, France was producing nearly 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear — a level that continues today. With hydroelectric plants adding another 12 per cent, about 90 per cent of France’s electricity is carbon-free. It ranks 10th out of 149 in Columbia University’s Environmental Performance Index, while thanks to state subsidies, consumers’ electricity bills are among the lowest in Europe. “Nuclear is not the solution,” says Barre. “But I don’t think there is a solution that doesn’t include nuclear.” But this glossy spin on the French atomic miracle obscures some important facts.
On the wooded shores of Western Finland lies a site that Areva would sooner the world forgot. This is Olkiluoto island, where the world’s first EPR and the forerunner to Flamanville was due to enter service early this year. Instead, this remote outcrop is the scene of a bitter battle over costs and delays. It has seriously damaged France’s reputation and a multibillion-euro lawsuit is now pending against Areva. Building is three years late while costs have soared 75 per cent to 5.3 billion euros. Oursel blames the Finns’ poor “attitude”, a failure to collaborate and the fact Olkiluoto was the first of a kind. But for Yves Marignac, director of campaign group WISE-Paris, the debacle is symptomatic of a deeper malaise that runs to the heart of the French nuclear industry.
“On virtually every issue the programme has failed to deliver on its promises,” he says, stressing that UK policymakers are in the grip of a “dangerous and costly illusion” if they think France is a model for how nuclear power should be implemented. Certainly, calculating the financial cost to France of building its own nuclear fleet is not easy. While consumers do pay relatively modest electricity bills, they have also funded the billions of euros worth of subsidies that have been pumped into the industry for decades, says Duncan Sinclair, a consultant at Redpoint Energy.
“It’s impossible to know what the real costs were or whether it was any more economic than alternatives,” he says. Meanwhile, France’s claims of being a “low-carbon” economy are also debatable. It’s true relatively little carbon dioxide is emitted from electricity generation and its consumption of the dirtiest fuel, coal, is negligible. But the notion that nuclear has allowed France to break its reliance on imported fossil fuels is false.
After a low of 74 million tonnes in 1985, France now imports about the same amount of oil as in 1974 — 94 million tonnes a year, while gas imports have quadrupled over the same period.

If France’s oil-hungry transport sector is taken into account, more than 70 per cent of France’s energy consumption is still supplied from fossil fuels, with oil accounting for 49 per cent of the total in 2007 — the figure in the UK is 41 per cent. In fact, the average citizen in France consumes more oil per person — 1.46 tonnes per year — than in Germany or Britain, at 1.33 tonnes. While French carbon emissions are lower than most developed countries, they are too high for its nuclear industry to be celebrated as a “solution” to climate change.
In 2007, France emitted 405 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, making it the 16th biggest carbon polluter in the world. That is better than the UK’s 564 million tonnes (8th place) or coal-dependent Germany’s 835 million (6th) but, at 6.4 tonnes per head, French emissions are more than three times the level thought necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. It’s worth noting that Switzerland and Sweden use less nuclear energy but have lower per capita emissions, of 5.8 and 6.3 tonnes respectively.
Marignac claims France’s relentless focus on nuclear power has crowded out viable alternatives. “We need a much greater focus on energy efficiency and renewables but nuclear power prevents effective development of these,” he says. One problem, he says, is the subtler state support the industry receives besides mere subsidies. A clique of elite technocrats — most are graduates of the prestigious Ecole des Corps des Mines in Paris — has doggedly advanced the nuclear cause for decades. This has brought obvious advantages, but there is no doubt the so-called Corps des Mines has pursued nuclear power at the expense of alternatives. Its monopoly over decision-making has also stifled debate, even in parliament.
The country’s heavy reliance on nuclear has caused other difficulties. Fourteen of France’s 19 nuclear power stations are inland and use river rather than seawater for cooling. When water temperatures rise, EDF is forced to shut down reactors to prevent them over-heating. This has led to a succession of summer power shortages. In June, EDF warned France might need to import up to 8,000MW of electricity — enough to power Paris — because of the combined impact of hot weather, a strike by workers and ongoing repairs. By the end of October, almost 30 per cent of the country’s nuclear power generating capacity was offline because of industrial action or repairs.

It is a weakness that, while intermittent, undermines France’s much vaunted claims of energy independence, which itself hinges on imported uranium from Canada, Niger and elsewhere. France’s oft-cited boast to have achieved “50 per cent energy independence” ignores this.
There are other areas where the French nuclear “myth” deserves close scrutiny. While the country prides itself on a good safety record, it is not unblemished. The number of level one nuclear incidents (on an international scale of zero to seven) increased by about a third last year to 72, up from 56 in 2007. And two months ago, the French Government demanded to know how a nuclear research facility near Marseilles lost track of its plutonium stocks after several previously undeclared kilograms of the material were found — enough to make five nuclear bombs.
Then there is the issue of where to put the nuclear waste, which remains unresolved — as in Britain. Unlike in countries such as Sweden and Finland, no long-term solution has been determined for France’s waste, although a provisional plan exists to bury it in a “deep geological repository” in Alsace.
With no decision due before 2015, the future of this growing waste stockpile is likely to remain an awkward issue — especially since the facility at La Hague is three-quarters full. It is one of many issues France needs to address if it is to live up to its aim of being a showcase for nuclear power.
For Britain, where the challenges are more immediate — about a quarter of the country’s power plants are due to close down by 2015 — France offers important lessons on the benefits of a more strategic approach to energy policy. But the idea that it also offers a panacea for our carbon concerns would be to stretch the truth.