Linda Pentz Gunter from American advocacy group Beyond Nuclear takes a closer look at the French nuclear industry and explains why she believes it's far from the success story many people think it is.
Nuclear Power in France is a Disaster
Nuclear power in France is a disaster: economically, environmentally, and from a safety, health and security perspective. If this is not the message you are used to hearing about France, where almost all the lights are turned on by reactors, here are some reasons:
First, the global nuclear industry is very good at obfuscating the truth. This is also known as lying.
Second, the French nuclear industry, in particular, is very good at not telling the public a whole lot. This is also known as secrecy.
Finally, politicians around the globe – and especially in the U.K. and U.S. – eager to do business with the French government-owned nuclear corporations, Areva and Électricité de France – are content to spout disingenuous sound bites without delving beyond the surface. This is called “not looking beyond the end of your nose.” Actually doing so would reveal some rather ugly truths – like the fact that having all your electricity eggs in one nuclear basket means producing masses of radioactive waste.
Even President Obama, by all accounts a highly intelligent individual, fell prey to the lazy throwaway line about France recently when he said it would be “stupid” for the U.S. not to explore more nuclear power since France and Japan have used it “safely and effectively.” The last time President Obama used the word “stupid,” he caught a lot of flak. But in the nuclear context, the press remained silently uncritical.
Taking the critical approach would mean doing some homework. This would reveal, among other things:
• Far from energy –independent, France imports 100% of the uranium used to fuel its 58 reactors. There are 210 abandoned uranium mines in France whose wastes have been used to pave children’s playgrounds and public parking lots, a national scandal revealed only this year. Furthermore, France mines uranium in Niger where impoverished indigenous peoples suffer the deadly health consequences and the depletion and contamination of an already scarce water supply, a violation of human rights.
• France uses so much electricity for home heating that its nuclear power isn’t enough. At peak times for heating use, France imports coal-fired electricity from Germany.
• France, just like everywhere else in the world, has no radioactive waste repository.
• France reprocesses irradiated reactor fuel at La Hague. This dirty and contaminating process has left 81 tonnes of deadly plutonium on site, stored in tens of thousands of soda sized cans. Ninety-five percent of French waste is uranium, some of which is shipped to Russia while the rest is stored at the Pierrelatte facility in France. About 60 million gallons of liquid radioactive wastes are discharged from La Hague into the sea each year. These wastes have been found as far as the Arctic. In one year, La Hague discharges more radioactive krypton-85 gas than was released by all 500 atmospheric atomic tests over several decades. Locals effectively breathe radioactive air on a daily basis while leukemia clusters have been found in nearby towns. The seabed around the plant is equivalent to radioactive waste.
•Even the French nuclear authorities admit there are hundreds of incidents each year at French nuclear reactors and other facilities. In the summer of 2008, a cascade of accidents, in particular at the huge Tricastin nuclear complex, resulted in contaminated rivers, law suits and demands to test for leaks and spills at all French nuclear sites.
This is not the usual picture of success. That is because nuclear France isn’t one. It’s time our politicians and other nuclear boosters faced up to that uncomfortable truth.