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Is France set to backtrack on its nuclear promises?

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2012-08-28

France’s minister for industrial renewal said Sunday that nuclear energy is "an industry of the future" sparking discord with the government’s Green allies. The statement comes despite François Hollande’s pre-election pledge to cut nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy is a French "industry of the future”, the country’s minister for industrial renewal said on Sunday in a comment that has upset environmentalists in coalition with the government.

“We need energy that is not too expensive,” Arnaud Montebourg told BFM TV. “France's existing nuclear infrastructure is a huge asset, giving us cheap and affordable electricity.
“It is a strategically important asset and we will continue investing in France’s nuclear future.”

France, which has 59 nuclear reactors, is the world’s biggest consumer of atomic energy, which accounts for more than 75% of all electricity produced in the country. (The USA actually produces more, but it accounts for less than 20% of total consumption).

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan brought France’s reliance on nuclear power into sharp focus and led to a broad investigation into the safety of the country’s plants.

For France’s environmentalists, who were eyeing positions in government for the first time in a decade, the catastrophe in Japan was an opportunity to push their demands for an end to France’s status as the world’s leading consumer of nuclear power.

‘Big debate’

During his successful 2012 presidential election campaign François Hollande, courting the support of the “Europe-Ecologie-les-Verts” (EELV) grouping of Green parties, pledged to find ways to reduce France’s reliance on atomic energy.

In coalition negotiations with the EELV, he promised to launch a “big debate” and to start a process that would see “the nuclear share of the energy market drop from 75% to 50% by 2025.”

But so far, only one of France’s 59 nuclear reactors, at Fessenheim in eastern France, is due to be decommissioned. In operation since 1978, it is France’s oldest nuclear plant.
Hollande has also committed to finishing the construction of the 3rd generation EPR reactor in Flamanville, Normandy, which is expected to go into service in 2016.

French energy giants Areva and EDF (the French state is majority shareholder in both companies) have already sold three EPR reactors (one to Finland and two to China) and are hoping to expand exports of the EPR model to global markets once they are operational.

‘Belligerent provocation’

On Monday, leading French environmentalist and former Green Party presidential candidate Noël Mamère described Montebourg’s announcement as a “belligerent provocation” of the EELV, which has two government ministers and 18 members in the 577-seat National Assembly.

“It is extremely worrying to hear such a declaration from someone who is so central to the government,” he told Europe 1 radio. “If there is no clarification, and if this statement is not withdrawn, [the EELV] will be forced to re-examine the coalition agreements we made with the Socialists.”

On Monday, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls was openly supportive of Montebourg’s position, telling Europe 1 that nuclear energy was “definitely” France’s industry of the future.

For the opposition right-wing UMP party – which broadly supports maintaining and expanding France’s atomic energy industry – the Socialist ministers’ backtracking on its nuclear commitments proved the weakness of the EELV in government.

“The environmentalists are ready to swallow everything to remain in government,” mocked former Minister Nadine Morano in a tweet on Monday. “It is the worst betrayal of their beliefs on the nuclear issue.”

Date created : 2012-08-27


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