The Fukushima Effect: France Starts to Turn Against Its Much Vaunted Nuclear Industry

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Kenzo Tribouillard / AFP / Getty Images

The spent fuel pool of La Hague factory, a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant of French nuclear group Areva, November 22, 2011 in Beaumont-Hague, western France.

Is France’s long, proud, and at times defiant affection for nuclear energy finally beginning to wane in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster? While it’s still too early to pronounce France’s nearly four decade love affair with nuclear power finished yet, there are signs the doubts over atomic energy that arose elsewhere following the Fukushima melt-down are forcing reflection in France as well. True, that French re-thinking may not yet be generating dramatic developments like Germany’s move to shutter all its reactors by 2022, or even more moderate decisions by Italy and Switzerland to mothball plans to develop their atomic sectors. But the recent French introspection about the merits of nuclear power is posing some serious questions about the nation’s energy independence, industrial future, and role as one of the world’s biggest business proponents of civil nuclear technology.

The newest development in France’s post-Fukushima mulling came Tuesday, when the country’s independent watchdog agency delivered a government-commissioned audit of the nation’s 58 nuclear power plants, calling for significant safety upgrades. Though the Nuclear Safety Authority’s (ASN) said current security standards at French reactors allowed it “not to request any immediate shutdown” of any of facility, it nevertheless warned “continuing operations require existing safety margins to be strengthened as swiftly as possible.” The beefed up security recommendations involved what seems like basic stuff: ensuring sufficient back-up power capabilities, and creating “bunkerized” crisis control centers at plants; assuring necessary cooling capacities—even in emergencies—to prevent a Fukushima-style melt-down; and generally tightening all means of preventing or mitigating potential damages from earthquakes, floods or fires. It also called for a centralized “rapid reaction force” trained to intervene in nuclear emergencies to be formed and operational by the end of 2014. The ASN gave reactor operators—led by state-owned electric giant EDF—until June 30 to deliver proposals meeting the enhanced security standards of sites they run.

The ASN recommendations, moreover, come at a cost. According to ASN estimates, investment required to fulfill its safety recommendations will cost over $13 billion, no small sum considering French operators were already planning to spend $52 billion over the next three decades to consolidate or upgrade existing infrastructure. As always when adversity hits business in the pocketbook, the final cost will be passed all the way down to the French consumer’s monthly electricity bill—a fact no one was trying to hide. “I don’t see how this cannot have an impact on prices,” warned ASN president Andre-Claude Lacoste. If so, nuclear energy will no longer seem like the cheap energy date the French have been so hot for over the years.

(PHOTOS: An official tour of the Fukushima plant.)

That’s especially true given the post-Fukushima context within which a growing number of French consumers are now reviewing their energy habits. France generates nearly 75% of its electricity from nuclear reactors, and French consumers have come to love the relatively cheap (and, they’re told, clean) source of power that has largely protected them from the oil-driven spikes in energy prices other nations often suffer. Indeed, the effort to make France less dependent on energy from outside providers (ie. Oil producers) was what led successive French governments to embrace nuclear in a big way from the early-1970s onward. That policy not only made nuclear technology the main source of France’s energy by far, but also made it central to French national industrial vision—capped by  the 2001 creation of Areva as the sector’s global leader.

Cheap, clean, exportable, and very profitable, nuclear power has remained a productive and positive national specialty much beloved by the French, even as its reputation has seriously dimmed elsewhere. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and less dramatic nuclear disasters (not to mention effective campaigning by environmentalist groups like Greenpeace) may have led other countries reconsider or fully recoil from nukes, but never France. That view now seems to be changing, and may harden still as the price of nuclear-generated electricity continues to rise.

Given the magnitude of the disaster, it probably wasn’t surprising to see French polls taken after the Fukushima drama in March showing a new desire to wean France off its nuclear fix. Surveys taken last June found 62% of French respondents supporting a gradual phasing out of nuclear power—over 20 to 30 years—and 15% calling for a rapid halt. Only 22% of people favored continued development of France’s nuclear sector. Despite the passage of time—and arrival of other crises closer to home—that French skepticism over atomic energy has endured, with the future of nuclear power now shaping up as a significant issue in this spring’s presidential and legislative elections.

Pushed by environmentalist allies calling for a quick end to nukes in the case of a leftist victory, front-running Socialists challenging France’s ruling conservatives are vowing to phase out use of 24 aging reactors—but fall short of Green demands to close current plants and scrap construction of planned facilities. That has not only created a considerable rift among loosely allied leftist parties, but it’s also allowed the right to depict the future of nuclear power as a key to France’s economic security, putting millions of jobs at risk while imperiling a venerable pillar of French energy and industrial policy. Leftists, conservatives say, are promising to return France to a pre-nuclear Stone Age.

That may be a risky position to take, given the shifting views on nukes within French public opinion—and its inclination of late to view most proposals from the right as both ideologically blinded and out of touch with wider reality in France. Either way, the stakes may well be high for the nuclear sector in upcoming balloting, along with an entire slate of things people in France used to take for granted as eternal givens, and whose futures in a new era of austerity seem very seriously up for grabs.