PARIS—Across the French countryside, within sight of villages and towns, thick clouds of steam rise from giant cooling towers at 58 nuclear energy plants that provide more than three quarters of the nation's electricity. In this, France far outpaces other countries, with Japan second at about 34 percent of its electricity. Nuclear power supplies about 20 percent of the electricity in the United States, where public anxieties and high costs have prevented construction of new reactors since 1979.
This reliance has made France something of a poster child for nuclear power. Now, around the world, nuclear power is getting a fresh look as an alternative to using oil, natural gas, and coal that produce climate-changing carbon emissions. And the French government sees an opportunity. It is preparing to build a new generation of reactors and to step up sales abroad of its technology. "France has become one of the leading countries capable of exporting technology around the world," says Luis E. Echávarri, the director general of the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It is, he adds, "in a very strong position."
While France's heavy dependence on nuclear power has been popular—seen as a source of jobs and a safeguard against energy shortages—that view is being challenged. Opponents are warning that the new nuclear plants are too costly and will produce more dangerous waste that contains significantly higher levels of radioactive material. It's not clear whether such opposition will hinder the government's plans.
Public acceptance. The lack of real debate here until recently, critics say, was less a vote of public support than a failure in the French political system. "Nobody asked the French people what they thought," remarks Jean-Philippe Desbordes, author of Atomic Park, a book critical of the French program. "France is much less democratic than the United States."
That's not entirely true, since polls over the years consistently have shown public support, in no small part owing to the active encouragement of the government. France's ambitious nuclear energy program was first established by Gen. Charles de Gaulle in 1958, but it was not until the 1973 oil shock that nuclear power became a national priority. The first plants built by the nationalized electricity company Electricité de France, known as EDF, were based on American technology under license from Westinghouse. But France has since become a major developer and exporter of nuclear energy technology.
Today, the French nuclear program is making a new growth push. In January, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the construction of a new-generation European pressurized water reactor, or EPR, in Penly in northern France. The project is expected to employ some 2,000 workers during the five-year construction period and cost $2.3 billion.
The new reactor will be more powerful than any currently in commercial use. It will consume 15 percent less uranium while producing 30 percent less nuclear waste. The waste, however, will be considerably more radioactive than that produced by older reactors.
The decision to build the Penly plant was quickly challenged by environmentalists, who say high levels ofradioactivity from the new plant will pose a serious health risk to workers and that nuclear waste will have to be stored above ground for a longer period than has been the case to date. "Despite the French government's global marketing of its flagship European Pressurized Reactor as cheap and safe," the environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement, "nuclear energy is rapidly becoming the most expensive way to produce electricity, and its highly radioactive waste poses an ever- increasing problem."
In announcing the construction of the Penly plant, the second in the series, the French government is hoping that building the reactor will persuade potential foreign clients to import the technology. Although no EPRs are now operating, two are currently under construction, one in Finland at Olkiluoto and the other in Flamanville in France's Normandy region. The Finnish reactor has faced serious construction problems, including flawed pipes and waterlogged concrete, that have delayed its original April 2009 completion date by three years and led to cost overruns of 50 percent.