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France's Much-Vaunted Nuclear Program Draws Fire

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France's Much-Vaunted Nuclear Program Draws Fire

Europe

France's Much-Vaunted Nuclear Program Draws Fire

France's Much-Vaunted Nuclear Program Draws Fire

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The French nuclear energy program, which provides about two-thirds of the nation's electricity, is much admired and held as a model of energy self-sufficiency by some observers. Critics say, however, the program is deeply flawed, with major cost over-runs and safety problems that have been covered up by the French government.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

World leaders in Copenhagen are struggling to reach an agreement on ways to reduce carbon emissions. One option for the US: copy the French. France gets most of its electricity from nuclear power, and the French are selling their expertise around the world.

But as Eleanor Beardsley reports, the cost of the French system may be higher than the government is willing to admit.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: On a windy cliff overlooking the English Channel in the French region of Normandy stands one of France's 58 nuclear reactors. Not far down the coast, another is under construction. These reactors help France meet an impressive 80 percent of its electricity needs, compare that to just 20 percent in the United States.

France made a strategic national decision to invest in nuclear power to lessen its dependence upon foreign energy supplies after the first oil shocks of the 1970s.

Dr. BERTRAND BARRE (Scientific Advisor, AREVA): It was a major investment funded mostly by banks all over the world. But, in fact, the government didn't put money. All the French government did at the time was giving its warranty.

BEARDSLEY: That's Bertrand Barre. He's a scientific advisor to AREVA, the French state-owned nuclear conglomerate. Apart from being low in carbon emissions, Barre also says that nuclear power is cheaper than its competitors once you've amortized the cost of building the plant.

Dr. BARRE: Nuclear power is costly in capital expenses, so you have to put a lot of money up front. But during operation, it's by far the least costly of all base load power supply.

BEARDSLEY: Base load power supply is the minimum reliable amount of electricity needed to meet demand. Variable power sources like wind and solar only provide power when the wind blows or the sun shines. So base load power is usually provided by coal, gas, nuclear and, to some extent, hydroelectric power plants.

Barre says that's why France is expanding its nuclear capacity and building a new generation of reactors. Known as the European Pressurized Reactor or EPR, these state-of-the-art third-generation reactors will eventually replace the world's second-generation reactors as they expire.

France is currently building four EPR prototypes: two in China, one in Finland and the other in Normandy. If all goes well, French state-owned AREVA will build more EPRs in China, the U.S., Britain and India.

(Soundbite of drums)

BEARDSLEY: But the debate on the expansion of nuclear power is by no means settled in France. Anti-nuclear groups object on both economic and safety grounds. Greenpeace says the EPRs will produce wastes seven times more dangerous than current nuclear plants.

Just last week, Greenpeace activists chained themselves to a railway track in Normandy to block what they said was nuclear waste being exported to Russia.

Yannick Rousselet, head of Greenpeace's anti-nuclear campaign, spoke to NPR while he was chained to the rails.

Mr. YANNICK ROUSSELET (Nuclear Campaigner, Greenpeace): (Through Translator) We are forced to physically act if we want to stop the export of nuclear waste to Russia. And we have managed to disrupt their shipments this way.

BEARDSLEY: The French nuclear industry says nuclear waste is being stored safely. As for the EPR, it says the French and German-designed plant uses less uranium to produce more electricity and creates less waste.

But leaving the safety argument aside, Yves Marignac, Paris director of WISE, a consultancy group associated with anti-nuclear lobby, disputes the economic case for nuclear expansion. He says the new plants in Finland and Normandy are way past schedule and way over budget.

Mr. YVES MARIGNAC (Director, WISE-Paris): The reactor that is being built in France was politically decided on the basis of the cost of 28 Euros per megawatt hour, that was some five years ago. The reactor is not finished yet. But the projected cost is already at 54 Euro per megawatt hour, which is almost doubled the cost that was used to say this is competitive, let's go for it.

BEARDSLEY: Marignac says it might look good on the outside, but the French nuclear model success is an illusion. By controlling the reactors, running the electricity network and establishing regulated tariffs, he says the state has hidden the true costs and risks of its nuclear program while passing them on to the consumer.

For its part, the French government says its convinced that nuclear power is the only way to provide France with energy security while cutting carbon emissions.

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

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