Is the French nuclear industry in trouble? It’s been a bad year for it – a long run of bad news. This summer’s long list of leaks and accidents at French nuclear sites caused by incompetence, cover up and poor safety standards made the international press.
Bad news continues to leak out of the construction of the ‘state-of-the-art’ nuclear reactor at Flamanville. Nine months behind schedule after only nine months of construction, and featuring substandard concreting and poor welding procedures, the new reactor is hardly the showcase for the ‘nuclear renaissance’ that it’s builders Areva were hoping for.
And the bad news doesn’t stop there. Uranium mines in France are exhausted. This makes the country completely reliant on foreign reserves to fuel its nuclear power stations that provide 80 per cent of the country’s electricity. To make this situation worse, the Niger government has announced that it is breaking Areva’s de facto monopoly in uranium mining in the country. Thirty per cent of France’s uranium comes from Niger but the government has just announced that it is opening up its market to the likes of India, Canada and China. Tuareg rebels opposed to the government have restarted their armed struggle and are demanding 30 per cent of uranium revenues.
Areva has a large share in Canada’s world's largest undeveloped high-grade uranium deposit in Cigar Lake, but that project has been seriously delayed by recurring floodings, postponing the envisioned start up date by years.
With the summer conflict between Russia and Georgia testing relations with the West and showing a worrying fragility of security in Eastern Europe, will France be able to rely on uranium supplies from Russia and Kazakhstan in the future? True, France has reprocessing facilities but that is also a game of diminishing returns.
The top seven uranium suppliers that provided nearly 90 % of world’s production in 2007 were Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Niger, Namibia, Uzbekistan. Five of those seven countries can hardly be considered politically stable and yet they produced half the total uranium in the world last year. Their share of the market is set to rise.
So, the past, present and future of French nuclear policy don’t look so bright. Will anything change? Experience would suggest not. With Areva’s sharpest salesman, President Nicholas Sarkozy, travelling the world peddling the nuclear dream, France isn’t giving up yet. The dangers and the pitfalls are there for the rest of us to see. But like the American gold rushes in the 19th century, the rush for uranium induces a form of madness.
The French government has set itself the target of producing 20 per cent of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2020. This looks very unambitious when compared to the 40 per cent target announced by the British government. Wind and solar capacities are growing quickly in France. Imagine where those industries could go with a slick salesman backing them across the world.