PARIS – Pictures of smoke coming out of the reactor building at Penly nuclear power station sent a shiver down the spine of the French television viewer.
Around lunchtime on April 5, unit 2 had an emergency shutdown and external firefighters were called in to put out two fires of oil that had spilled from a primary cooling pump. In the early evening the operator realized that cooling water was leaking. It took until 4 o’clock the next morning to stop the loss of coolant from a damaged joint of the pump.
The event is a powerful reminder that something can go wrong anytime at any of the 58 reactors in the country. Between 600 and 800 “significant events” in nuclear power plants are registered every year in France.
The government had deployed every effort to keep the nuclear myth alive and well. Less than two months after the Fukushima crisis started unfolding, President Nicolas Sarkozy stated during a visit to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at Gravelines: “As chief of state I have confidence in the safety of the French nuclear fleet. … Just because there was a tsunami in Japan, we should call into question what represents the strength of France, the pride of France, the independence of France?”
The nuclear issue is playing a significant role in the election campaign that will determine a new president on May 6. According to public opinion polls, Sarkozy has only a slim chance of being re-elected, and if he fails, the industry will miss its most prominent salesman.
What is the record in nuclear dreamland France, which has served as a blueprint for Japan’s adventures in splitting the atom? While nuclear plants provide three-quarters of the country’s electricity, this equates to only 17 percent of the final energy compared to close to half still being provided by oil.
Energy independence? Due to highly inefficient uses, per capita oil consumption in France is as high or higher than in Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom or even the European Union on average. In 2011, the foreign trade deficit reached a historic record of ?70 billion — most of it due to oil and gas imports — while Germany registered a ?158 billion surplus.
When freezing weather hit Europe in early February, France’s neighbors made available up to 13,000 MW net to save the French grid from collapsing. Of this, 3,000 MW came from Germany, which had shut down half of its nuclear fleet just days after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
This is the result of irrational policy incentives that have pushed electric space heating into one-third of existing and three- quarters of new homes. As a result, every degree Celsius drop in temperature increases capacity needs by 2,300 MW. Furthermore, energy poverty now affects about 4 million French households, of which 1.1 million had access to social tariffs in 2010, a 120 percent increase since 2007.
Despite its political support, the financial sector is increasingly nervous of France’s nuclear titans. Electricite de France (EDF), the largest nuclear utility in the world, has a debt burden of over ?33 billion and its share value has plunged 78 percent since 2007.
AREVA, the biggest nuclear builder, filed a ?2.4 billion loss for 2011, its share value crashed by 75 percent over the past five years and its credit-rating is just one notch off “junk bond” level. The French nuclear industry is in bad shape.
In many countries, public opinion shifted dramatically and triggered policy changes, and even in France, various polls indicate three-quarters of the population now in favor of a nuclear phase-out — just like in Japan. For the first time since the launch of the French nuclear program 50 years ago, the main political parties are split and the most likely next president, Francois Hollande, vowed to cut the number of reactors by one-third by 2025. Political leaders have started listening to citizens. Will that also happen in Japan?
Mycle Schneider is an independent international consultant on energy and nuclear policy. He has advised the Belgian, French and German governments and has lectured extensively at parliaments and universities around the world, including at Japan’s Diet and Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University.