The Bugey power plant is the oldest in France still operating at full capacity.
After 40 years, the nuclear power station, located to the east of Lyon, still provides 2,000 jobs and accounts for 7 percent of national nuclear production.
In 15 years, two of its four reactors could be shut down but in the eyes of anti-nuclear activist Jean-Pierre Collet, this is not enough.
He has been living in the shadow of the plant for years and has been calling for its dismantling.
“What engages us is the impact on health,” he told Euronews. “The plant emits radioactivity all the time, we don’t necessarily know that, of course it’s invisible.
“Then there is the problem of nuclear waste, there are plans to bury it, but it’s there forever and we don’t know how to reprocess it.”
In 2019, the Nuclear Safety Authority identified weaknesses regarding radioactivity and waste management.
French energy company EDF said that any problem is handled and that any risk would lead to the shutdown of the plants. But how long can Europe’s first nuclear power plants last?
Nuclear’s last hurrah?
A total of 14 of the 57 nuclear reactors currently operating in France could be shut down by 2035, while the last coal-fired power plants will be closed by 2022.
The government’s objective is to decrease the nuclear power share from 70 percent to 50 percent and to increase the share of renewable energy up to around 40%.
This is a promise that has been made by two successive presidencies in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, which had shifted public opinion away from nuclear energy.
Although a nuclear power plant emits comparatively little CO2 compared to coal or gas stations, it is the age of these plants that brings a risk to the inhabitants of the surrounding area, according to environmental associations.
A spokesperson for Greenpeace told Euronews: “Near the Bugey power plant, at a distance of about 30 km, there are more than a million inhabitants, so in the event of an accident there would be a major risk for the inhabitants of France but also for neighbouring countries.”
But in the long term, what are the energy sources that can ease some of the burden placed on nuclear in France? Some say that renewables are not sufficient to meet energy demand so consumption may need to be controlled first.
According to EDF’s head of sustainable development Karine de Koursson: “We have a very important objective to deploy solar and wind power, so when we are at 50% nuclear and 50% renewable energies, with a controlled energy consumption, we will manage to meet French needs.”
Striking a balance between nuclear and renewables
While they are a guaranteed source of energy, renewables do come with advantages and limitations.
Although they have become increasingly affordable in recent years, the are not as consistent as nuclear or fossil fuels.
According to de Koursson: “Costs have dropped significantly over the last 10 years, but unlike nuclear power, renewable energies are less controllable, since they are more dependent on climatic conditions.”
Another source of concern is the drop in exports of energy produced by nuclear power.\
France is the leading exporter of electricity in Europe. But for some experts, too large a decline in nuclear power could have counter-productive effects.
General Director of the Société Française d’Énergie Nucléaire (SFEN) Valérie Faudon told Euronews: “The peaks of electricity consumption in France are usually in February, at 7pm, and it’s dark so we can’t really rely on solar energy, so we have nuclear power.
“We can have wind power, but we could also have no wind on that day, so in that case we have the possibility to import. There will be times when it will be different sources of electricity, but what we can say on average over the year is that it’s more like gas power plants that we’re going to replace.”
It’s a tricky balancing act as Europe inches closer to it’s carbon neutral targets.
But with the risk of seeing CO2 emissions increase, everything will depend on what France’s neighbours do and how fast they do it, in a Europe where energy has become interconnected.