France's Nuclear Failures

Background - 1 April, 2009
France's nuclear 'success story' is a 50-year history of failures, detailed in our briefing on The Global Chance report "Nuclear power, the great illusion: promises, setbacks and threats" (PDF), and summarised in the seven points below.

Breaking news, March 31, 2009: AFP reports that two senior executives at French state energy giant Electricite de France (EDF), which runs France's nuclear power plants, have been charged on suspicion of spying on Greenpeace.

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1. Climate policies

France's structural overcapacity of nuclear power presents an obstacle to the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures. France is trapped in a nuclear "quicksand", causing the country to seriously fall short on policies for energy efficiency and clean energy solutions.

2. Energy security

Its nuclear programme did not reduce France's oil dependence. Nuclear power contributes only about 14 percent to France's final energy consumption, while France consumes more oil per capita than the European average. Controlling energy demand and renewable energy are more important to achieving energy security and greenhouse gas emission reductions than nuclear energy.

3. Economics

Though largely invisibly, French taxpayers bear a large part of the nuclear costs. The French government, as both the regulator of electricity prices and the owner of the utility EDF, has been able to overcome the main obstacle to nuclear power by planning, at liberty, the return of capital costs from nuclear investments. French public funding is widely supporting the nuclear industry, from financing extensive R&D programmes to guaranteeing low-rate loans.

4. Safety

New potential safety threats have been identified, related to climate change or deliberate acts of malice, shedding a worrying light on the safety level of the ageing French nuclear installations. The French nuclear industry, which includes every step of the fuel chain, brings about a wide range of safety hazards. The operators of France's 200 nuclear facilities declare a very large number of events every year; EDF alone declares 10,000 to 20,000 events, of which 700 to 800 are deemed 'incidents' or 'significant'.

5. Security

Nuclear installations - whether reactors, fuel-manufacturing, reprocessing, waste storage plants or transports - have not been designed to withstand the impact of the use of hijacked airliners. A plane crashing on one of La Hague's spent-fuel storage ponds can cause radioactive releases more than 6 times the equivalent of Chernobyl. At the same time, secrecy blocks any democratic debate on the issue. Also, the EPR does not seem ready to face the new dangers; the lessons of 9/11 have not led the authorities to review basic design requirements.

6. Waste

France, the country of nuclear expertise, has no long-term solution for its nuclear wastes. Its radioactive waste inventory keeps growing in size (890,000m3 by 2004) and complexity. Reprocessing, presented as reducing the volume of highly-radioactive wastes, instead increases the complexity and danger of waste management. Dismantlement of nuclear installations is also set to cause major, but as of yet unappreciated, costs and problems.

7. Nuclear weapons

France is dramatically worsening the problem of proliferation of nuclear weapons by its policy of promoting nuclear power in some of the most unstable parts of the world. France sends out an extremely dangerous message to the rest of the world by ignoring the build up of a large stockpile of plutonium - a key component in nuclear weapons - while promoting the expansion of reprocessing internationally.