Japan Nuclear Crisis Raises Doubts In France

Nuclear energy is the backbone of France's energy policy. The country gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Up until now, nuclear has had broad support. But events in Japan are prompting a rethink — at least by the public and media.

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The nuclear crisis in Japan is also raising questions in France. The country gets nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. That makes it the most nuclear-energy-dependent nation in the world.

And until now, nuclear power had broad public support in France. Eleanor Beardsley reports.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking foreign language).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Since the earthquake and tsunami that damaged the Fukushima Daiichi plant, the French public has watched in disbelief as frightening scenes of the destroyed reactor fill the nightly news.

A recent poll now shows that 57 percent of French people say they believe the country should end its reliance on nuclear energy. And for the first time ever, the French nuclear safety watchdog said that nobody can guarantee that there will never be a nuclear accident in France.

That is an amazing change of tone for the French nuclear industry, says Yves Cochet, a parliamentarian with the Green Party.

Mr. YVES COCHET (Member of Parliament, France): (Through translator) For 30 years we have been hearing how France is the world nuclear champion and there couldn't possibly be a serious accident. Now they admit it's possible. They seem a little less arrogant, and it's about time.

BEARDSLEY: The French nuclear industry dates back to the 1950s, a legacy of President Charles de Gaulle. After building atomic bombs, France turned its attentions toward nuclear energy.

For decades, politicians from across the political mainstream have supported nuclear power. And that's why it has been so difficult for the French to be against nuclear energy, says Bernard Laponche, a nuclear physicist who once worked on French reactors.

Mr. BERNARD LAPONCHE (Nuclear Physicist): We have so much nuclear, they feel that it's impossible to do something different. And also, the government pretended for half a century that it was independence, French independence of energy, which is totally wrong because we are very much dependent on oil.

BEARDSLEY: President Nicolas Sarkozy promised France would draw the necessary lessons from the Japanese disaster.

President NICOLAS SARKOZY (France): (Speaking foreign language).

BEARDSLEY: He called for stress tests at all 58 of the country's nuclear reactors. But Sarkozy said France would continue to rely on nuclear energy, calling it a pillar of the country's energy policy.

Mr. BERTRAND BARRE: Is nuclear power safe? There is no answer to that blunt question.

BEARDSLEY: That's Bertrand Barre, a consultant with French nuclear reactor builder Areva.

Mr. BARRE: Are we doing what's needed to make nuclear power safe? And the answer is: Indeed, when moving from generation two to generation three, we are increasing a lot the safety of nuclear plants.

BEARDSLEY: Barre says third-generation reactors are much safer than current ones and will be able to withstand natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

But nuclear physicist Laponche says you don't need a serious accident to have a disaster. Just take the nuclear plant in Nogent sur Seine, he says.

The sleepy town of Nogent sur Seine lies along the banks of the Seine River. Two giant cooling towers seem out of place in this bucolic setting. Laponche says even a mild accident at this plant could be devastating because Nogent sur Seine lies 50 miles upriver from the city of Paris and its 12 million inhabitants.

Many people in Nogent sur Seine, like Arlette Mayer, say the plant has been good for the town, providing jobs and income.

Ms. ARLETTE MAYER: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: And we need nuclear for electricity, says Mayer. I'm not a bit worried. I have total confidence in the authorities.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: Still, since the accident in Japan, others say they're not so sure anymore. Three retirees sit on a bench in the shade. Some of us are scared now, they admit.

Laponche says that while attitudes at the state level have not changed, the French people, the media and some political parties are beginning to truly question France's nuclear dependence.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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