French lawmakers start examining a new bill on Monday aimed at speeding up the construction of new nuclear reactors, which President Emmanuel Macron says are crucial to bolstering France’s energy independence. Critics of the bill, however, say it ignores pressing concerns over the safety of the country’s ageing reactors as well as the industry’s dependence on uranium imported from Russia.
The proposed legislation comes a year after Macron pledged to modernise and expand the country’s nuclear industry in a dramatic policy U-turn, reversing his predecessor’s commitment to cap the share of nuclear power fuelling France at 50 percent – down from the current 70 percent, the highest in the world.
Macron has proposed the construction of six new French-designed EPR2 reactors, designed to enter service starting in 2035, with an option for a further eight reactors to follow. The bill is intended to streamline the administrative and bureaucratic processes needed to approve and build new plants. It also does away with the 50 percent cap introduced only eight years ago by former president François Hollande.
The bill’s chief sponsor Maud Bregeon, a lawmaker from Macron’s ruling Renaissance party, said the legislation would “allow France to reach carbon neutrality” by increasing the share of low-carbon energy derived from nuclear sources. Crucially, she added, it would also bolster the country’s energy independence as European countries scramble to wean themselves off Russian gas and oil amid the war in Ukraine.
As with the controversial pension reform plan that has roiled the country in recent months, Macron’s minority government is relying on support from the conservative Les Républicains party to ensure passage of the bill, which has already sailed through the right-wing-dominated Senate.
However, concerns over the safety of France’s ageing nuclear plants threaten to throw a spanner in the works, just days after the country’s main nuclear watchdog, the Agence de sûreté nucléaire (ASN), reported the latest case of corrosion cracks at a nuclear facility.
Last November, a record 26 of France’s 56 nuclear reactors were shut for repairs or maintenance, forcing the country to import electricity from Germany – just when it was hoping to showcase the benefits of its much-vaunted nuclear industry amid a continental energy crunch.
News of the latest cracks at the Penly plant in Normandy has cast a spotlight on a controversial amendment merging the ASN with another nuclear inspectorate, the IRSN, which critics of the bill have flagged as evidence of the government taking nuclear safety lightly. Green lawmakers, in particular, have blasted what they say is an attempt to “dismantle” the IRSN, vowing to battle the draft legislation in the National Assembly.
Public opinion swing
On top of security concerns, opponents of the government’s planned nuclear revamp cite the enormous cost of building new reactors while also maintaining an ageing fleet that requires frequent repairs. They point to the first-generation EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) being built in Flamanville, in northwest France, which is now more than a decade behind schedule and whose cost has ballooned from an initial €3.3 billion to four times as much.
However, polls suggest opponents of nuclear power are fighting a losing battle, with public opinion steadily warming to the industry as surging energy prices weigh on French consumers and memories of Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster fade.
“The Greens’ mistake since Fukushima has been to think that we’d won the battle (against nuclear power),” the party’s 2022 presidential candidate, Yannick Jadot, told a meeting in Paris on Friday, calling for an urgent change of strategy.
According to an Odoxa poll conducted earlier this year, 60 percent of the French now have a positive opinion of nuclear power, up from 34 percent in 2019. An even higher percentage – 71 percent – said they backed the proposal to speed up the construction of new reactors. Remarkably, support has also risen among the Greens’ own voters, with one in two backing nuclear power, according to an Elabe poll.
The shift in public opinion signals an astonishing reversal of fortunes for the industry, just five years after Macron initially confirmed his predecessor’s plans to close 14 reactors by 2035 and cap the share of nuclear-powered electricity at 50 percent before abruptly changing course last year.
Since Macron’s U-turn, France has embarked on an aggressive push to advocate nuclear power in EU energy policies, teaming up with like-minded member states to promote nuclear power as a low-carbon energy source and the bloc’s best chance of achieving energy security. The move has put Paris on a collision course with traditional EU partner Germany, which argues that nuclear power should not be put on a level footing with renewable energy.
A new dependence?
Critics of France’s nuclear push also dispute the government’s claims regarding energy sovereignty, arguing that the nuclear industry’s continuing ties with Russia are simply another form of dependence.
In a report timed to coincide with the start of debates in the National Assembly, Greenpeace claimed on Saturday that France’s nuclear industry was “under Russian influence” due to its reliance on imports of uranium from countries in the former Soviet bloc whose exports transit Russia.
In 2022, “almost half of all French imports of natural uranium came from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan”, the environmental advocacy group argued, with most of them arriving at the port of St Petersburg via the Russian nuclear firm Rosatom, “which controls the transport of all nuclear-related materials transiting on Russian soil”.
Rosatom, which runs Russia’s civilian nuclear programme, currently operates the flashpoint Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in occupied Ukraine. It is also in charge of the maintenance of Russia’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
Greenpeace accused France and other EU countries last December of continuing to import nuclear fuel from Russia, describing their reluctance to sanction Moscow’s nuclear industry as “scandalous”.
“Contrary to what nuclear advocates claim, the French nuclear industry is hugely dependent on Russian authorities, which might explain why France continues to oppose sanctions against Rosatom at the European level,” the environmental group said on Saturday.
Responding to Greenpeace’s allegations, a French government source told AFP that sanctions targeting Russia’s nuclear sector would have “only a modest impact” on the country’s economy, without elaborating. The source also claimed that penalties resulting from a unilateral cessation of existing uranium re-enrichment contracts would be “more profitable to Russia” than simply allowing the contracts to expire.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly urged the EU to sanction the Russian nuclear industry and most recently the heads of Rosatom. The European Commission has so far ruled this out amid resistance from several EU countries with domestic nuclear industries, including France.
Source: France 24