Breaking a long silence, Green Party presidential hopeful Nicolas Hulot adopted a resolutely anti-nuclear stance on Monday, which risks alienating potential voters in a country where 55% of the electorate sees nuclear power favourably.
The nuclear disaster unfolding at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan is definite proof that nuclear power is not a solution to the world’s energy needs, French environmentalist and presidential hopeful Nicolas Hulot said on Monday, ending his often-criticised tolerance of France’s civilian nuclear energy programme.
"I was one of those who had a certain trust in the arguments made by pro-nuclear engineers. Today they are losing their edge in the face of the facts," Hulot told journalists at an anti-nuclear demonstration in the city of Strasbourg to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine.
IN PICTURES: WORLD MARKS CHERNOBYL ANNIVERSARY
A helicopter spreading a chemical compound to reduce radioactive contamination above the Chernobyl nuclear plant in 1986. The world has marked the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear accident of the 20th century. ©AFP
Rally organised by groups representing Chernobyl clean-up workers in Kiev on March 16. Veterans of the clean-up have been officially honoured but nonetheless complain of shoddy treatment. The sign has been modified to read "Warning, radioactive breathers". ©AFP
Former rescue workers sent to fight the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear plant holding carnations during a ceremony to mark the disaster in Khoiniki, some 45 kilometres from the site, on April 22. ©AFP
Portraits of Chernobyl rescue workers who were sent to fight the nuclear disaster attached to wooden crosses at a mock cemetery near a nuclear plant in the French southwestern city of Golfech on April 24. ©AFP
A man carrying a metal barrel painted with the radioactive sign during a protest at a nuclear plant in the French southwestern city of Golfech on April 24. ©AFP
A woman holding a poster reading "Nuclear sucks!" as anti-nuclear activists have lunch in front of a power plant at the French southwestern city of Blaye on April 25. ©AFP
Anti-nuclear activists marching toward the Grafenrheinfeld nuclear power plant in southern Germany on April 25. ©AFP
Yellow flags reading "Atomic power? no thanks!" at rally near Berlin's emblematic Brandenburg Gate on April 23. German anti-nuclear activists said 1,200 people rallied in Hamburg and 900 others in Munich the same day. ©AFP
Greenpeace activists outside BNDES bank headquarters in Rio de Janeiro simulating a nuclear accident. BNDES is one of the main financial backers of the Agra III nuclear reactor under construction in southern Brazil. ©Greenpeace / Ivo Gonzalez
Taiwanese female singer Lee Mi holding an anti-nuclear sign during a demonstration in Taipei on April 25. The protest sought to highlight calls to shut the island's three existing power plants. ©AFP
Protesters wearing masks as they march against Japan's nuclear policy during a parade on April 24. Hundreds of people joined the march "Energy Shift Parade" demanding the use of sustainable energy in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. ©AFP
Hulot was heckled by some protesters for his alleged inconsistency. Stéphane Lhomme, one of his rivals in the Green Party’s upcoming primaries, said Hulot’s “sudden conversion” was “due to his need to get the Green Party’s financial backing” and to rally enough supporters to “hang up his [campaign] posters”.
But while Hulot’s delay in fully adopting the anti-nuclear position is seen by some as a ploy meant to secure his nomination as the Green Party’s candidate in the 2012 presidential vote, it reflects a widely held ambivalence in France about the issue of nuclear energy.
With more than 58 reactors in operation, France is one of the world’s nuclear powerhouses and has, for decades, been resolutely in favour of atomic energy. According to government figures, more than 75% of the country’s electricity is produced in nuclear plants.
“I’m amazed that Hulot took so long to show a clear anti-nuclear stance,” said Michel Wieviorka, a sociologist and expert on the political left in France. However, he added, the anti-nuclear movement has had little room to manoeuvre in France until recently.
France’s decision to heavily invest in and develop nuclear energy was a direct result of the 1973 oil crisis, Wieviorka explained. At that time a consensus that nuclear power was critical to France’s independence emerged between the conservative Gaullist politicians and almost all of the political left, including the powerful CGT trade union.
“That consensus began to erode after Chernobyl,” Wieviorka said, adding that it remained mostly intact until very recently. Even after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, a majority of the French opposed the Green Party's proposal to scrap the civilian nuclear network.
Fifty-five percent of French people are against quitting nuclear energy, according to a survey done by French polling agency TNS Sofres at the request of the EDF energy company. That compares to 87% of Germans and 77% of Swiss who would like to lay nuclear energy to rest.
“The conflict within the political left is ongoing,” said Wieviorka. “There is a position that favours high economic growth, and the production of energy is important for that. And then there is the idea that we can live better with less growth.
“The conflict is not between one left-wing party and another. It exists within parties and even within individuals,” he added.
As the world remembers Chernobyl and remains anguished by the plight of Fukushima, Hulot’s anti-nuclear awakening may seem a bit late in coming. But in France the debate over the wisdom of nuclear energy is hotter now than its ever been before.
Date created : 2011-04-25