France Moves Ahead With Nuclear Waste Project
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Over two-thirds of Americans believe the Earth is getting warmer, and 55 percent believe that global warming requires immediate government action. That comes from a PEW Research Center survey conducted earlier this year and we mentioned it in the way of introduction to this week's installment of Climate Connections, our yearlong series with National Geographic.
BLOCK: France is sometimes seen as a role model for combating climate change, that's because the government there has decided to rely heavily on nuclear power. Eighty percent of France's electricity comes from nuclear facilities. Of course, one of the biggest problems with nuclear power is that it produces nuclear waste. And in France, finding a place to put nuclear waste has been a messy affair.
NPR's David Kestenbaum has our report.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: The town of Bure is in eastern France, but it's not found on many maps.
(Soundbite of rooster crowing)
KESTENBAUM: Here, you'll find cheese-makers, farms, and you also find a mineshaft.
Unidentified Man: (French spoken)
KESTENBAUM: The mineshaft goes a third of a mile down into a thick deposit of ancient clay that dates back to the dinosaurs. It's in this clay France plans to bury its nuclear waste.
Dr. ERIC SUTRE (Geologist, ANDRA): So we have two shafts, one for the rescue and to suck the air.
KESTENBAUM: This is Eric Sutre, a geologist here. He's just come up and he's wearing green overalls and a headlamp.
Dr. SUTRE: So there is a fan, and around here, and a chimney here.
KESTENBAUM: Sutre says clay is a good place to put nuclear waste because it seals things off. Water moves through clay slowly — only about a few feet in a million years.
The geological studies aren't finished yet, but the government is working hard to reassure people everything is being done properly. The place has a fancy visitors center with multimedia displays. And tourists do come, not like they do to see the "Mona Lisa."
Dr. SUTRE: Yes, it is not the Louvre, but for example, we have a special day each year when we open the site. And so last year we had 1,400 people coming here.
KESTENBAUM: It's sometimes said that the French trust their engineers — that engineering is a point of national pride. But that doesn't mean people don't worry. When they come here, they ask questions like, what happens if there is an earthquake?
Dr. SUTRE: So we answer, there are very few earthquakes and they are very little.
KESTENBAUM: But here's the thing. No one really wants nuclear waste in their backyard. And in a democracy where everyone gets a say, people usually say no.
How did France pick Bure? It's been a long painful process, as anyone who has participated can tell you.
Dr. GHISLAIN DE MARSILY (Geologist, University of Paris): My name is Ghislain de Marsily.
KESTENBAUM: Geologist at the University of Paris.
Dr. DE MARSILY: And I'm a member of French Academy of Science.
KESTENBAUM: De Marsily says that when the French government began evaluating sites in the early 1980s, it did it secretly, which didn't go over very well.
Dr. DE MARSILY: The names of the site was kept secret. And even the reports on these experiments were not mentioned. The name of the site was site A, site B, and they were somewhere and nobody knew exactly where. You know, it was a little bit unpleasant.
KESTENBAUM: The government tried to reassure the public. Argued that a waste site was of national importance. But there were protests, in one case, armed riot police had to be sent in.
Dr. DE MARSILY: And even the local farmers wanted to transform their trucks and their farming equipment into tanks to fight against the police. So it was really going to be a local revolution.
KESTENBAUM: Finally last year, the government seemed to lose patience. It passed a law setting a tight deadline for readying a waste site. And even though the government had pledged to choose from several sites, only one place has a lab doing the necessary research and can be ready in time - this place, Bure.
Dr. DE MARSILY: Yeah. There is no alternative. It's Bure.
KESTENBAUM: The U.S. has a similar history. It began investigating multiple sites. That became expensive, though. And Congress chose Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Locals called the screw Nevada bill, and opposition has brought the effort to a near halt.
But from here, the French story takes a different path. In France, the local member of parliament voted for the law that could send waste his way. I went to see him. His name is Francois Dose, and this being France, he works out of an old castle. The ceilings look to be over 20 feet high. He welcomes me in and says many of his constituents seem to have accepted the project.
Mr. FRANCOIS DOSE (Member, French National Assembly): (Through translator) People around here feel apprehensive. They often are people close to the land. So the idea of burying waste in the ground, even household waste - just imagine how they might veer radioactive waste. But, you know, in this region, candidates openly against this project don't seem to win elections.
KESTENBAUM: That could be because there is a sense in France that once the central government makes up its mind, there's not a lot locals can do. Or it could have something to do with the money. They are getting a lot of it from the government. Dose says the region has received 9 million euros, about $12 million in the past decade. Some of that is spent on roads and schools.
Mr. DOSE: (Through translator) For us, it's like a financial bonanza. Towns and villages in this area will get so much money in the next 10 years for hosting this project - 20 million euros. That they won't even know what to do with it.
KESTENBAUM: So has France solved the unsolvable? Found a place to put nuclear waste for a million years? Maybe.
There is an anti-nuclear movement in Bure. If you travel down the road a bit from the laboratory visitor's center, you'll find another visitor center of sorts, a small stone farmhouse that is over 100 years old, and looks it. This the house of resistance set up by local activists.
(Soundbite of knocking)
KESTENBAUM: I arrived just in time for coffee. The water is being heated on a wood-burning stove. A small dog named Rasta(ph) runs under the table. Isabelle Guillaume runs the place.
Ms. ISABELLE GUILLAUME (House of Resistance): (Through translator) She says that there is a great danger. The people are being told nonsense so they calm down and stay, you know, quiet, but the truth is that there are great danger about burying the nuclear waste, and that they have scientists who proved that.
KESTENBAUM: The opponents don't have fancy multimedia presentations, but they have a CD of protest songs. Printed on it, in English, it says, "Stop Bure -Brothers & Sista." Not reggae.
(Soundbite of music)
KESTENBAUM: And the truth is that France, even though it gets most of its electricity from nuclear power, is still somewhat uncomfortable with it. In a poll, only one out of five said they were in favor of the nuclear power. One in three opposed it.
Nuclear power may be one solution to the problem of global warming, but it doesn't have a huge fan base, even here.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
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