Post Fukushima, French Still [Heart] Nuclear Power

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 4/06/2011 12:02:00 AM
Just when a nuclear power revival was supposedly in full flower, troubles with the technology at Japan's Fukushima facility are prompting a global reassessment of its costs and benefits. Yes, it's a virtually carbon-free technology. Yes, it weans you somewhat from importing fossil fuel from perpetually unstable parts of our world. But, as Fukushima reminds, safety challenges associated with the technology come in all sorts of shapes and forms. End result? The Germans are actually going backwards in forsaking nuclear power for old-fashioned coal power. Some progress.

However, the same sentiment is not shared by their French counterparts. As you probably know, over three-quarters of France's energy needs are accounted for by atom splitting. Such is their overall level of public comfort with the technology that few have complained about it in Fukushima's wake. The prestige of being the chief of France's nuclear power firm remains undimmed as its current head and that of the nuclear services firm EDF are battling for the honour of leading Areva (whose famous ad featuring the 70s disco hit "Funkytown" is featured above).

Part of the reason why nuclear power is so firmly entrenched domestically in France is that it sets an export base to sell these engineering wares. Although the French haven't developed cold feet in using nuclear power, the fear is that foreign customers may be. So, a primary task is assuaging them that, yes, modern French technology is more advanced (read: safer) than that of 70s-era nuclear plants in Japan.

For reasons familiar to those who've studied some European history, the French usually punch above their weight in international diplomacy, whether it's dealing with the aftermath of the global financial crisis or erstwhile arms customer Moammar's slaughter of Libyan civilians. Hence, it should be of no surprise to anyone that the French are once again at the forefront of proposing international rules to ensure the safety of nuclear power. To say that they are self-interested would be an understatement, but you can't argue with the sheer energy they put into jumping the gun. From the coverage of President Sarkozy's visit to Japan a few days ago in Reuters:
France -- the most nuclear-dependent in the world -- called for new global nuclear rules and proposed a global conference in France for May as President Nicolas Sarkozy paid a quick visit to Tokyo on Thursday to show support. "We must look at this coldly so that such a catastrophe never occurs again," said Sarkozy, who chairs the Group of 20 bloc of nations, during his brief stopover.

It was the first visit by a foreign leader since a March 11 earthquake and tsunami battered northeast Japan, leaving nearly 28,000 people dead or missing. The damage may top $300 billion, making it the world's costliest natural disaster.

Prime Minister Naoto Kan, under enormous pressure as he struggles to manage Japan's toughest test since World War II, welcomed the gesture of solidarity. "I told him a Japanese proverb -- 'a friend who comes on a rainy day is your true friend', and thanked him for coming to Japan from the bottom of my heart," he said.
While there is of course a humanitarian concern in assisting the Japanese deal with their nuclear woes, you can't help but believe that the French are eager to lend their disaster containment expertise to once again demonstrate their engineering prowess to would-be clients:
France is a global leader in the nuclear industry, and Paris has flown in experts from state-owned nuclear reactor maker Areva to work with Japanese engineers. "Areva is one of the companies that will make the most out of a nuclear revival and therefore will be in most trouble if there isn't a nuclear revival," said Malcolm Grimston, an expert from London's Imperial College. "Certainly Sarkozy or France generally have a very strong interest in getting things moving as quickly as possible and trying to ensure that there isn't a major backlash (to nuclear power). France would be one of the biggest losers from that."

Other nations are also scrambling to help Japan. The United States and Germany are sending robots to help repair and explore the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant. Kyodo said some 140 U.S. military radiation safety experts would soon visit to offer technical help.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which says the situation at the Fukushima plant remains very serious, already has two teams in Japan, monitoring radiation levels. The Japanese disaster, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl in 1986, has appalled the world and revived heated debate over the safety and benefits of atomic power.
It isn't hard to decipher where the French stand on this issue alongside their nuclear national champions. As the events in Japan unfold, they're busy lauding loan guarantees the US is making for developers of new nuclear power plants Stateside. The business of atom splitting will go on for the French.