Monday, August 29, 2011

France heedless to Fukushima wake-up call

Back in the 1990s, I was given a guided tour of Sellafield, an infamous nuclear complex on the edge of England’s spectacularly beautiful Lake District. One of the first things I noticed was a sign reading “Mr Bean free zone” in a plant containing spent radioactive fuel. For years afterwards, I thought about the damage that a clumsy character could do in a facility like that. Today, I reckon that Mr Bean would offer a safer pair of hands than the people who run the nuclear industry.

Francis Sorin from SFEN, the French nuclear energy association, ties himself up in knots while trying to make the case that there is life for his industry after Fukushima. In a recent article, he contradicts himself in the space of the same paragraph.

“In our country which, unlike Germany, has no coal, oil or gas, nuclear is synonymous with security of supply,” he writes. “Indeed, thanks to this energy source and to the contribution of hydraulic energy, France is now capable of producing all its own electricity, quite independently of any outside market. Areva, the world’s number one producer of uranium, owns and/or exploits significant uranium mines in America, Africa and Asia. This stock of energy reserves amounts to the equivalent of 35 years of national consumption.”

One moment, Sorin is lauding how nuclear energy guarantees France independence. The next he is acknowledging how that energy depends on imported resources. And he seriously wants us to believe that nuclear is preferable to wind and solar power? That it is better to use radioactive substances transported from Africa and Asia than sources of energy that are readily available at home?

Shaky foundations

The shaky foundations of France’s nuclear industry are laid bare in a new book by Corinne Lepage, a former government minister who is now an MEP. In “La vérité sur la nucléaire” (“The Truth About Nuclear”), she excoriates how the industry has been nurtured by the state, without any proper democratic oversight. Among the sordid consequences are that malfunctions in nuclear installations have been kept secret. Details of a 1968 accident affecting the core of a reactor at Chooz, a nuclear plant near the Franco-Belgian border, were not disclosed until 1977.

Lepage makes a convincing case that the manner in which France has taken the nuclear option is illegal. Under the French constitution, the national assembly has powers to legislate on matters relating to defence and the environment. Yet even though the nuclear industry patently relates to both of those policy domains, the country’s 58 reactors were built as a result of a prime ministerial decree from 1963. The same goes for the nuclear reprocessing centre Le Hague, the French equivalent of Sellafield.

Her book also leaves the reader in no doubt that there is an unhealthily close relationship between the grandees of politics and energy. Jean-Claude Lenoir used to be in charge of buttering up parliamentary contacts for Electricité de France. He is now a parliamentarian for Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement. In 2004, he was put in charge of drafting legislation on electricity and gas.

The attempts by the nuclear industry to rebrand itself as green and as a solution to climate change look all the more cynical when you examine who that industry has hopped into bed with here in Brussels. Areva and Vattenfall say they are committed both to nuclear and renewable energy. Yet they have allied themselves with some of the world’s dirtiest men. The two firms are part of the European Energy Forum, which also includes Shell and BP, the wreckers of the Niger Delta and Gulf of Mexico respectively. The forum arranges for MEPs to go on corporate-sponsored junkets. Later this week, the forum will participate in a trip to Canada, where our elected representatives will be able to inspect work on extracting tar sands that will accelerate global warming.

Research reactor in earthquake zone

The Fukushima disaster should have shattered all illusions about the safety record of nuclear power. Yet big nukes are still being cosseted by the EU’s institutions. On 7 March – four days before the Japanese earthquake that triggered a series of meltdowns in Fukushima – the European Commission recommended that 2.5 billion euros should be allocated to nuclear research in 2012 and 2013. The EU’s governments endorsed that proposal in late June.

A particularly obscene aspect of this decision is that much of the money involved will be spent on a project called ITER, the international thermonuclear experimental reactor. It is being built in Cadarache in Provence. A 1994 paper drawn up by the French Institute for Nuclear Safety and Protection (IPSN) said that the area surrounding Cadarache is one of “destructive seismic disturbances”. Significant seismic events are likely to occur in that region about once a century, the paper noted, with the last major event of such a nature in 1913.

A few weeks before he died last year, the Nobel-winning physicist Georges Charpak urged that ITER be shelved and the money earmarked for it spent on “useful research”. Echoing his call, Lepage denounces the French government for insisting that ITER continues, against the interest of the country’s taxpayers. “The truth is that the megalomania of the nuclear lobby has put France, already in a bad financial position, in a financial vice it will be difficult to loosen,” she writes.

How much longer can policymakers be allowed remain heedless to the wake-up call from Fukushima?

·First published by New Europe (, 29 August 2011.

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