The Flamanville nuclear plant's two reactors generate enough electricity for the entire regions of Normandy and Brittany.
The Flamanville nuclear plant's two reactors generate enough electricity for the entire regions of Normandy and Brittany. AFP/Getty Images
After the energy crisis of the 1970s, France invested heavily in nuclear facilities, and today the country is much less dependent on foreign oil. Environmentalists cite safety concerns, but the French government and the powerful nuclear lobby seem determined to press on toward their goal of using nuclear power to achieve energy independence.
On the coast of Normandy overlooking the English Channel, sits the nuclear power plant at Flamanville. Its two reactors generate enough electricity for the entire regions of Normandy and Brittany. France has 58 nuclear plants like this which meet 80 percent of its total electricity needs — and allow it to export power to Britain, Germany and Italy.
"France chose nuclear because we have no oil, gas or coal resources, and recent events have only reinforced the wisdom of our choice," says Laurent Striker, senior vice president at Electricite de France, the world's largest power company.
France began beefing up its civil nuclear program after the 1974 oil crisis. Over the next decade, the country built nearly two reactors a year. While the nuclear accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl turned public opinion in the United States and Europe against nuclear energy, in France nuclear power never went out of fashion.
French and German engineers have already developed the next generation of nuclear reactors, expected to start commercial operation in the next five years. Bertrand Barre, with the government-owned company Areva, the world's largest builder of nuclear power stations, says the next generation will be even safer.
French environmentalists say the economic benefits of nuclear energy are far outweighed by the dangers of its byproducts and their storage. They also say nuclear facilities are potential targets for terrorists.
Greenpeace activists recently surrounded and chained themselves to a truck transporting plutonium from the La Hague nuclear recycling facility to an undisclosed burial site, as it stopped at an intersection in the middle of a French town.
But the French government and the powerful nuclear lobby seem determined to press on toward their goal of using nuclear power to achieve energy independence for France.
French President Jacques Chirac recently announced plans for yet another generation of nuclear power stations, which would come on line by 2020. Areva and the French government are also aggressively selling French nuclear know-how to other countries, especially China.