Heat Spells Trouble for France's Nuclear Reactors
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
For our series Climate Connections with National Geographic, reporter Anita Elash investigates why many French reactors have had trouble operating during hot spells.
ANITA ELASH: The village of Golfech is one of those rare places in southwestern France that even the tourists pass by.
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ELASH: With just 800 residents, one cafÃÂ©, and no remaining remnants of its history as the commander's residence during the Crusades, the main attraction in Golfech is its nuclear power plant.
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ELASH: Golfech is on the right bank of the River Garonne and barely half a mile from the nuclear plant where there are two reactors built in the late 1980s.
ALEXIS CALAFAT: (French spoken)
ELASH: As the mayor of Golfech, Alexis Calafat shows off the reactor. He's standing near a fish elevator designed to help migratory fish get past the reactor so they can spawn. The reactors are among the most modern in France. And like all nuclear reactors, they need abundant supplies of cool water to keep operating. But during the heat wave that swept France in 2003, they had trouble getting it and one of the reactors have to shut down. Calafat says the river water was too hot.
CALAFAT: (Through translator) During a hot spell, the water gets very hot because the river here is shallow.
ELASH: Bruno Rebelle is the former program director for Greenpeace International. He's not against nuclear energy, he says, but he thinks France has invested far too much in it. And any country that relies more than a little on nuclear power could end up paying a high price.
BRUNO REBELLE: Well, if you'll look at the trends, one can think that heat waves - shortage of water due to climate change would be more frequent in the coming years. So if you - at the same time, you have electricity production system which is too highly depending on nuclear industry, you will have a kind of catch-22, because at a time when - for heat wave, you need more electricity, for example, to use air conditioners, you will not be able to run with your plants due to the fact that you can't cool them down.
ELASH: Other countries - including Germany, Spain, Sweden and the United States - have also had to shut down or cut back on nuclear energy output during heat waves in the last few years. But industry representatives say they don't believe global warming will be much of a problem for them. Luis Echavarri is the director-general of the Nuclear Energy Agency, which represents nuclear power regulators in 28 countries.
LUIS ECHAVARRI: We don't think that an increase of the global temperature in the world is going to affect significantly the nuclear power plants, even if this happens. Because what we are talking about is between 1.5 and five degrees equal 100 years. So we don't think, from that point of view, is a challenge.
ELASH: Echavarri says problems caused by higher temperatures or shrinking rivers can easily be solved by adding cooling towers or improving technology.
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ELASH: At Golfech, the EDF is pursuing two solutions. The reactor already has a cooling tower and up-to-date technology, so when it gets hot, the electricity company brings in extra supplies of cold water using a fleet of huge trucks. And last year, it got special permission to further increase the temperature of the water it's pumping back into the river. Environmentalists are worried that the hotter water will impact the fish and other life in the river.
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ELASH: Back at the fish elevator, Mayor Calafat admits there are fewer fish in the river this year, but says he's not concerned about their reactor - or, for that matter, global warming.
CALAFAT: (Through translator) I think that in history there have always been hot periods and cold periods, and right now we're in a hot period. Is pollution really causing that?
ELASH: For NPR News, I'm Anita Elash in Golfech, France.
MONTAGNE: And in this month's edition of National Geographic magazine, you can read more stories on global climate change.
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