Japan’s nuclear tragedy is igniting a debate in France which generates more than three-quarters of its electricity from nuclear energy. The French nuclear sector has the unflinching support of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has decided to extend the lifespan of France’s nuclear plants so they can operate beyond 40 years. State-owned Electricite de France is a French powerhouse, which operates all of the nation’s nuclear reactors and which wants their licenses extended by 20 years.
Sarkozy has lobbied hard at home and abroad in favor of nuclear power, a substantial sector of the French economy. France actively exports nuclear energy technology and takes in nuclear plant waste from countries around the world. However, Sarkozy is also trailing in presidential election polls to Francois Hollande, who has pledged to reduce the nation’s dependence to under 50 percent if elected.
22 of the country’s 58 nuclear reactors will have reached their 40 year lifespan by 2022. The French government, meanwhile, is expected to release its own analysis of the nuclear energy program there by mid-month. It will say that increasing the lives of the existing units there from 40 to 60 years is a better way to spend the national wealth than to build new power plants from scratch.
“The president has decided to ask all the operators to position themselves to be able to prolong the lifespan of our reactors and our nuclear plants beyond 40 years,” France’s industry minister, Eric Besson said. The decision doesn’t automatically mean an extension because the regulator has the final say, according to the minister. “It would be a waste to halt our reactors at 40 years,” Besson said. A nuclear power exit would be “destructive” for French industry, Besson said. “There’s nothing reasonable about it.”
In January, French regulators said that all of the nations units current security techniques must be enhanced right away. The French Nuclear Safety Authority also added that stronger safety measures are needed to prevent the spread of radiation in the event of an accident.
“Nothing has changed,” says Jacques Besnainou, chief executive of Areva North America, in an interview with this writer, referring to the events in Japan. “This event will make nuclear safer. We think nuclear is still a good bet. Fukushima will not delay the renaissance.”
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