How France Sees Its Nuclear-Powered Future

It expands the use of nuclear energy at home and seeks to increase nuclear-technology sales abroad.

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A world marketplace. France is aggressively pursuing a worldwide market. In September, EDF bought British Energy, the leading nuclear energy company in the United Kingdom, for 12.5 billion pounds ($23.2 billion at the time of the announcement). In December, EDF announced it would invest $4.5 billion to increase its share in the American firm Constellation Energy Nuclear Group from 9.5 percent to just under 50 percent. In February, the French government-controlled engineering giant Areva, the world's biggest nuclear power plant construction company, announced it would build at least two, and perhaps six, EPR nuclear reactors in India.

Officials say the new reactor at Penly and the other EPR plants being built take into account the disastrous explosion at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl reactor in 1986 (as well as the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania in 1979) through a safeguarded system that cools the heart of the reactor. The reactors are surrounded by a protective layer of reinforced concrete that can allegedly withstand the impact of a wide-body jetliner. "It took years for people to realize that the lesson from Chernobyl was learned," says Echávarri of the Nuclear Energy Agency. "It has taken time to build that confidence."

The French nuclear program is based on three key ideas: centralized management, close cooperation among the key industrial players and the government, and the recycling of nuclear waste. By applying the same technology to all of its nuclear plants—as opposed to the United States, where some 80 different plant designs currently exist—France has significantly cut both construction costs and the time needed to obtain building permits.

In addition, the similarity of the design can make it easier to react to emergencies. "An incident in any one of the plants automatically leads to verification that the same problem does not exist in all the other plants," says Frank Carré, the deputy director in the nuclear development division of the French Atomic Energy Commission. The drawback, he admits, is that a generic problem with the technology in any of the plants means that repairs must be made in all the plants.

The second major characteristic of the French program—close cooperation among EDF, Areva, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the government—lends itself to coordinating research and development and establishing a nuclear power strategy. Such closely knit cooperation is, of course, much easier in France, which has a long tradition of government involvement in major industrial enterprises, ranging from the supersonic Concorde jetliner to the TGV high-speed train.

The downside, according to critics, is that in the case of the French program, the government simply decided to trivialize the risks by placing the nuclear power plants near where people live, thereby giving a false sense of security as the installations came to be seen as part of the landscape.

But it is in the area of nuclear waste treatment that Paris and Washington disagree most strongly. The French have been recycling nuclear waste for some 25 years, a process the United States strongly opposes because it requires separating uranium from plutonium, which in theory could then be diverted to the production of nuclear weapons. The French argue that recycling waste material is the best way to deal with the waste problem and to ensure the long-term availability of uranium. "In France, we have confidence in the efficiency of the safety measures and in being able to control nuclear proliferation," Carré says.

While the debate goes on, nuclear energy is poised for a global comeback. More than 30 applications for nuclear power plants are pending with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States. Italy, Britain, China, India, and even Russia, which is awash in oil and natural gas, are eager to build. So are several Eastern European countries that are vulnerable to cutoffs of Russian natural gas.

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