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France aims to sell world on nuclear power

Twenty years after Chernobyl, a new crop of leaders, from North America to Europe to Asia, is thinking nuclear and leading the way is France.
Large nuclear reactor components are assembled at this factory in Chalon sur Saone, France.
Large nuclear reactor components are assembled at this factory in Chalon sur Saone, France. Jacques Brinon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

At a factory nestled among Burgundy vineyards, workers shape, bore, polish and test pieces needed to put together a nuclear reactor. At each work station, technical charts are pasted next to a map of the country buying the product.

A reactor core marked for the Salem plant in New Jersey is propped on its side, 16.5 feet wide and resembling a chunk of an enormous railroad tunnel. Nearby, workers prepare to broach holes into a plate for 15,000 cooling tubes for a reactor in Ling’ao, China.

Twenty years after the Chernobyl nuclear plant coughed a cloud of radiation over much of Europe and scared consumers and governments away from atomic power for a generation, a new crop of leaders, from North America to Europe to Asia, is thinking nuclear.

One country has done perhaps the most to push back the pendulum: France.

As the only European country that continued making new nuclear plants after Chernobyl, France has up-to-date expertise that it’s keen to export. And the market is ballooning.

Oil threatens to become unaffordable, gas pipelines run through zones of political uncertainty and coal-fired power plants clog lungs and may overheat the Earth. With energy worries topping the world’s agenda, even a few environmental activists are reconsidering nuclear power, persuaded by improved safety and the fear that fossil fuels pose even greater dangers to the planet.

China and India are embracing nuclear energy to support breakneck growth. The United States and Russia are reviving long-dormant nuclear plans, overriding concerns about proliferation of the potentially deadly technology.

Finland is building the first new reactor in western Europe since 1991, made by Germany’s Siemens and Areva, the world’s biggest reactor manufacturer, which operates the factory in Burgundy.

‘Renaissance’ predicted
Not everyone is softening on nuclear power. Sweden and Germany are shutting down, not starting up, reactors. But even Britain, Italy and the Netherlands are talking about the option. So far it’s only talk — but groundbreaking talk, given these countries’ two-decade taboo on the topic.

“We’re positioned rather well for a nuclear renaissance,” says Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier, an Areva vice president.

France’s key partner in promoting that renaissance is an unexpected one: the United States. After two decades on the defensive, the nations’ industries are cooperating closely in hopes of a new boom in nuclear power.

France is the most nuclear-dependent country in the world, with 59 reactors churning out nearly 80 percent of its electricity. The French state owns the world’s biggest electricity utility, Electricite de France, or EDF, and nuclear group Areva, the key to France’s international nuclear influence.

France is selling more than electricity and reactor parts. It’s preaching an updated version of the long-abandoned nuclear idea, a gospel of emission-free energy to wean nations off foreign fuel and harness the atom for a peaceful, electrified future.

Some 25 reactors are under construction around the world, adding to the network of 440 commercial nuclear power plants spread out over 31 countries that supply 16 percent of the world’s total electricity. Areva is directly involved in at least five of the new projects.

Environmentalist perspective
To Helene Gassin of Greenpeace, who has fought France’s all-powerful nuclear industry for years, the thriving, expanding reactor factory in this modest industrial town is an alarming sight.

“Whenever we see an offer on nuclear energy, anywhere in the world, it comes from France,” said Gassin. “Nuclear is the French identity.”

** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY MARCH 26 ** A man works in the nuclear reactor factory in Chalon sur Saone, France, Feb. 23, 2006. Twenty years after the Chernobyl nuclear plant coughed a cloud of radiation over Europe and scared consumers and governments away from atomic power for a generation, a new crop of leaders, from North America to Europe to Asia, is thinking nuclear. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)Jacques Brinon / AP

Greenpeace insists that despite the industry’s claims, safe nuclear power is a myth. Reduced consumption, it says, is the key to solving the world’s energy dilemma.

Unlike other European countries, France has never had intense debate over nuclear energy. Gassin and the few nuclear opponents in France’s legislature say that’s because the industry is run by a monopoly — EDF — which is in turn run by the state.

France has also never suffered an accident the likes of Chernobyl or the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.

Greenpeace calls that luck. Besides, say critics, nuclear energy generates radioactive waste that is costly to store and prone to theft by terrorists. More than 35 million cubic feet are stored in France alone.

London-based energy analyst David Bryant says the French government has made safety paramount because it’s key to keeping the crucial industry afloat. Now, as more and more governments join research into the next generation of reactors, the industry says Generation IV will be the most efficient yet, will produce less waste and will be simplified to better handle and prevent accidents.

France, without oil, gas or much coal, chose the nuclear path in the 1970s and hasn’t turned back. But only in the last few years has its nuclear industry gone so aggressively global, as Areva’s bulging bank accounts attest.

The company has become a showcase of French industrial might, with revenues of $12 billion last year and net profits up 54 percent since 2002, excluding one-time gains. When French President Jacques Chirac makes major trips abroad, Areva chief Anne Lauvergeon accompanies him.

Welding technician Tajeddine Taoufik has watched the Chalon-Sur-Saone plant’s fortunes rise, fall and rise again since he started here in 1976. “At this moment, I’m glad I’m still here,” he said.

Taoufik is a veteran among an increasingly young work force. Areva is basking in the praise of local leaders for boosting employment, especially among youth, whose 22 percent jobless rate the government is desperate to reduce.

Bush administration push
While France has been working as the world’s atomic advocate, any global nuclear rebound hinges on the United States, because it has more nuclear plants than any other country and is the world’s biggest energy consumer.

The Bush administration has enraged environmental groups with its new “alternative energy” plan which, while promising money for wind and solar energy, makes the government’s first big pitch for nuclear energy in 27 years.

Washington and Paris are aligning closely on the subject in a way few would have pictured during their clashes over Iraq. This month former U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was appointed chairman of the board of Areva Inc., the company’s U.S. operation.

Bush and Chirac both recently visited India and snared major new nuclear energy deals — and even consulted with each other to ensure their stances were in sync.

Critics accuse the presidents of double standards in embracing India’s nuclear power ambitions yet tolerating its nuclear weapons — while clamping down on Iran.

A key to the resurgent interest in nuclear power is cost. While each new reactor costs several hundred million dollars, a University of Chicago study concluded that a new fleet of more efficient reactors can be expected to produce power as cheaply as coal and natural gas.

France’s electricity is among the cheapest in western Europe, costing $0.11 per kilowatt hour before taxes, below that of anti-nuclear neighbors Germany ($0.15) and Italy ($0.17), according to the EU statistics agency.

The high-profile battle for control of U.S. nuclear company Westinghouse — which Toshiba recently bought from British Nuclear Fuels for $5.4 billion, twice the expected price — underscores the business world’s view that the industry is poised for a takeoff.

Chernobyl and second thoughts
Still, for anti-nuclear activists, the shadow of the world’s worst nuclear accident, the April 26, 1986, explosion at Chernobyl in then-Soviet Ukraine, will never recede.

Some, though, have switched sides.

Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace, now says nuclear plants could safely help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and satisfy rising energy demand in the United States and abroad.

The most surprising new nuclear debate, however, is happening within Europe. While European public opinion remains strongly anti-nuclear, some governments are hoping that a European Union proposal to boost nuclear energy will help them overcome the naysayers.

The plan’s architect? France.