Why the French Like Nuclear Energy by  FRONTLINE producer Jon Palfreman

Civaux in southwestern France is a stereotypical rural French village with a square, a church and a small school. On a typical day, Monsieur Rambault, the baker, is up before dawn turning out baguettes and croissants. Shortly after, teacher Rene Barc opens the small school. There is a blacksmith, a hairdresser, a post office, a general store and a couple of bars. But overlooking the picturesque hamlet are two giant cooling towers from a nuclear plant, still under construction, a half-mile away. When the Civaux nuclear power plant comes on line sometime in the next 12 months, France will have 56 working nuclear plants, generating 76% of her electricity.

In France, unlike in America, nuclear energy is accepted, even popular. Everybody I spoke to in Civaux loves the fact their region was chosen. The nuclear plant has brought jobs and prosperity to the area. Nobody I spoke to, nobody, expressed any fear. From the village school teacher, Rene Barc, to the patron of the Cafe de Sport bar, Valerie Turbeau, any traces of doubt they might have had have faded as they have come to know plant workers, visited the reactor site and thought about the benefits of being part of France's nuclear energy effort.

France's decision to launch a large nuclear program dates back to 1973 and the events in the Middle East that they refer to as the "oil shock." The quadrupling of the price of oil by OPEC nations was indeed a shock for France because at that time most of its electricity came from oil burning plants. France had and still has very few natural energy resources. It has no oil, no gas and her coal resources are very poor and virtually exhausted.

French policy makers saw only one way for France to achieve energy independence: nuclear energy, a source of energy so compact that a few pounds of fissionable uranium is all the fuel needed to run a big city for a year. Plans were drawn up to introduce the most comprehensive national nuclear energy program in history. Over the next 15 years France installed 56 nuclear reactors, satisfying its power needs and even exporting electricity to other European countries.

There were some protests in the early 70s, but since then (with one important exception discussed below), the nuclear program has been popular and remarkably non controversial. How was France able to get its people to accept nuclear power? What is about French culture and politics that allowed them to succeed where most other countries have failed?

Claude Mandil, the General Director for Energy and Raw Materials at the Ministry of Industry, cites at least three reasons. First, he says, the French are an independent people. The thought of being dependent for energy on a volatile region of the world such as the Middle East disturbed many French people. Citizens quickly accepted that nuclear might be a necessity. A popular French riposte to the question of why they have so much nuclear energy is "no oil, no gas, no coal, no choice."

Second, Mandil cites cultural factors. France has a tradition of large, centrally managed technological projects. And, he says, they are popular. "French people like large projects. They like nuclear for the same reasons they like high speed trains and supersonic jets."

Part of their popularity comes from the fact that scientists and engineers have a much higher status in France than in America. Many high ranking civil servants and government officials trained as scientists and engineers (rather than lawyers, as in the United States), and, unlike in the U.S. where federal administrators are often looked down upon, these technocrats form a special elite. Many have graduated from a few elite schools such as the Ecole Polytechnic. According to Mandil, respect and trust in technocrats is widespread. "For a long time, in families, the good thing for a child to become was an engineer or a scientist, not a lawyer. We like our engineers and our scientists and we are confident in them."

Thirdly, he says, the French authorities have worked hard to get people to think of the benefits of nuclear energy as well as the risks. Glossy television advertising campaigns reinforce the link between nuclear power and the electricity that makes modern life possible. Nuclear plants solicit people to take tours--an offer that six million French people have taken up. Today, nuclear energy is an everyday thing in France.

Many polls have been taken of French public opinion and most find that about two-thirds of the population are strongly in favor of nuclear power. It's not that the French don't have a gut fear of nuclear power. Psychologist Paul Slovic and his colleagues at Decision Research in Eugene, Oregon, discovered in their surveys that many French people have similar negative imagery and fears of radiation and disaster as Americans. The difference is that cultural, economic and political forces in France act to counteract these fears.

For example, while French citizens cannot control nuclear technology anymore than Americans, the fact that they trust the technocrats that do control it makes them feel more secure. Then there is need. Most French people know that life would be very difficult without nuclear energy. Because they need nuclear power more than us, they fear it less.

Civaux baker Jacques Rambault, admits that this technology is potentially dangerous and needs skillful management. As Chernobyl showed, the Russians, he says, were not "up to the task. But the French scientists and engineers are." For other citizens, rubbing shoulders with workers at the plant has made this once exotic technology an everyday thing. Many other risks concern them more. Madame Schoumacher, who has lived in Civaux most of her life, says "I would be much more frightened living next to a dam [France has about 12% hydroelectric power] or getting into her car in the morning." Others like bar owner Alain Cauvin cite "mad cow disease as being much scarier than nuclear power.

Ironically, the French nuclear program is based on American technology. After experimenting with their own gas-cooled reactors in the 1960s, the French gave up and purchased American Pressurized Water Reactors designed by Westinghouse. Sticking to just one design meant the 56 plants were much cheaper to build than in the US. Moreover, management of safety issues was much easier: the lessons from any incident at one plant could be quickly learned by managers of the other 55 plants. The "return of experience" says Mandil is much greater in a standardized system than in a free for all, with many different designs managed by many different utilities as we have in America.

Things were going very well until the late 80s when another nuclear issue surfaced that threatened to derail their very successful program: nuclear waste.

French technocrats had never thought that the waste issue would be much of a problem. From the beginning the French had been recycling their nuclear waste, reclaiming the plutonium and unused uranium and fabricating new fuel elements. This not only gave energy, it reduced the volume and longevity of French radioactive waste. The volume of the ultimate high-level waste was indeed very small: the contribution of a family of four using electricity for 20 years is a glass cylinder the size of a cigarette lighter. It was assumed that this high-level waste would be buried in underground geological storage and in the 80s French engineers began digging exploratory holes in France's rural regions.

To the astonishment of France's technocrats, the populations in these regions were extremely unhappy. There were riots. The same rural regions that had actively lobbied to become nuclear power plant sites were openly hostile to the idea of being selected as France's nuclear waste dump. In retrospect, Mandil says, it's not surprising. It's not the risk of a waste site, so much as the lack of any perceived benefit. "People in France can be proud of their nuclear plants, but nobody wants to be proud of having a nuclear dustbin under its feet." In 1990, all activity was stopped and the matter was turned over to the French parliament, who appointed a politician, Monsieur Bataille, to look into the matter.

Christian Bataille resembles the French comedian Jacques Tati. His face breaks into a broad grin when asked why he was appointed to this task. "They were desperate," he says. "In France, executive power dominates much more than in Anglo-Saxon countries. So that if the Executive asks parliament to do something it means they are really at the end of their ideas."

Bataille went and spoke to the people who were protesting and soon realized that the engineers and bureaucrats had greatly misunderstood the psychology of the French people. The technocrats had seen the problem in technical terms. To them, the cheapest and safest solution was to permanently bury the waste underground. But for the rural French says Bataille, "the idea of burying the waste awoke the most profound human myths. In France we bury the dead, we don't bury nuclear waste...there was an idea of profanation of the soil, desecration of the Earth."

Bataille discovered that the rural populations had an idea of "Parisians, the consumers of electricity, coming to the countryside, going to the bottom of your garden with a spade, digging a hole and burying nuclear waste, permanently." Using the word permanently was especially clumsy says Bataille because it left the impression that the authorities were abandoning the waste forever and would never come back to take care of it.

Fighting the objections of technical experts who argued it would increase costs, Bataille introduced the notions of reversibility and stocking. Waste should not be buried permanently but rather stocked in a way that made it accessible at some time in the future. People felt much happier with the idea of a "stocking center" than a "nuclear graveyard". Was this just a semantic difference? No, says Bataille. Stocking waste and watching it involves a commitment to the future. It implies that the waste will not be forgotten. It implies that the authorities will continue to be responsible. And, says Bataille, it offers some possibility of future advances. "Today we stock containers of waste because currently scientists don't know how to reduce or eliminate the toxicity, but maybe in 100 years perhaps scientists will."

Bataille began working on a new law that he presented to parliament in 1991. It laid plans to build 3-4 research laboratories at various sites. These laboratories would be charged with investigating various options, including deep geological storage, above ground stocking and transmutation and detoxification of waste. The law calls for the labs to be built in the next few years and then, based on the research they yield, parliament will decide its final decision. Bataille's law specifies 2006 as the year in which parliament must decide which laboratory will become the national stocking center

Bataille's plan seems to be working. Several regions have applied to host underground laboratories hoping the labs will bring in money and high prestige scientific jobs. But ultimate success is by no means certain. One of these laboratories will, in effect, become the stocking center for the nation and the local people may find that unacceptable. If protesters organize, they can block shipments on the roads and rail. The situation could quickly get out of hand.

Nuclear waste is an enormously difficult political problem which to date no country has solved. It is, in a sense, the Achilles heel of the nuclear industry. Could this issue strike down France's uniquely successful nuclear program? France's politicians and technocrats are in no doubt. If France is unable to solve this issue, says Mandil, then "I do not see how we can continue our nuclear program."

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