Nuclear or "Non": The French election debate

Currently in the process of choosing its next president, France has some big decisions to make about its energy future. Beyond the debate surrounding European debt or globalization, questions about the nuclear industry and the development of renewable alternatives loom. Following the Fukushima disaster, the question is more relevant than ever, especially for a country so dependent on nuclear power. At the same time, their debate should be everyone’s debate, when it comes to choosing the safest, cleanest, most economically sound energy road ahead.

Currently in the midst of its presidential election, France has some big decisions to make about its energy future. Beyond the debate surrounding European debt or globalization, questions about the nuclear industry and the development of renewable alternatives loom. Following the Fukushima disaster, the question is more relevant than ever, especially for a country so dependent on nuclear power. At the same time, their debate should be everyone’s debate, when it comes to choosing the safest, cleanest, most economically sound energy road ahead.

 

This past Sunday in France, nearly 80 percent of French voters made their way to the polls for the first round of the presidential election. The campaign began with 10 candidates, many of whom were there to make their party’s voice heard, even if it is generally accepted that they will not be elected, in the end. An unsettling 18% of voters made it known that the change they seek would come from the political far-right, but it was no surprise that the final round of voting on May 6 will come down to the two main contenders, current president Nicolas Sarkozy (27% of first-round votes) and Socialist leader François Hollande (29%).

As in most major elections, these two mainstream candidates diverge on big questions like immigration policy, involvement in European affairs, or their approach to managing the debt crisis. On the science front, although much less talked about this election season, important differences arise in the candidates’ views on energy, and the relative roles that nuclear versus renewable energy sources should play.

Today, 75% of France’s electricity production comes from its 58 nuclear reactors. This is the highest proportion of any country in the world, and is in stark contrast to the movement away from nuclear power, seen among some of its neighbors: Spain, Italy and Switzerland all have bans of some sort on developing nuclear sites, while Germany has announced it will pull out of nuclear production entirely by 2022. Recent decisions against nuclear are likely a reaction, in part, to the Fukushima disaster of a year ago. But it is also true, as Nicolas Sarkozy told the scientific journal Nature, that the transition to alternative energy production, “will inevitably take place in France, as elsewhere”.

Source: Pa_Le / Flickr
nuclear energy

The question is not whether, but how and how fast to make this happen. France’s significant nuclear industry will not be shut down overnight and, for the moment, both candidates agree on the need to pursue research into safer reactor technology. François Hollande has also decided that, if elected, he will continue construction of a next-generation reactor at Flamanville, on the English Channel. Nuclear, he acknowledges, will help France meet its international obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

However, his ultimate goal, according to a deal with the green party, les Verts (2.3% of the national vote), is to see France reduce by one-third its proportion of power generated from nuclear sources. “Currently, we are doubly dependent on fossil fuels and on nuclear. I intend to bring the share of nuclear from 75% to 50% by the year 2025,” Hollande declared. He would achieve this via the closure of 24 reactors around the country. So far, though, the only plant he has committed to closing during his first term would be Fessenheim, France’s oldest nuclear plant, built in 1977 on the German border.

François Hollande meets with representatives of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant (©Benjamin Boccas / Flickr)

In the proposed closures, Sarkozy calls attention to the jobsthat will be lost. (According to his campaign site, the industry employs 400,000 people). Regarding Germany’s decision, in the wake of Fukushima, to withdraw from nuclear energy production altogether, the French president is not a fan. While insisting that he does not criticize Chancellor Merkel for this choice, he stressed the importance of keeping a level head, Le Monde reported last June. “Emotionalism, not keeping one’s cool, the immediacy of the media debate all lead one to make extraordinary decisions. We cannot, because there was a tsunami in Japan, consider that we must apply the same rules in non-coastal regions.”

For his part, while promising to develop R&D for alternative energy sources, the incumbent has no intention of reducing the share of nuclear-produced electricity. “Today,” he told Nature, “we spend as much on the development of nuclear as on that of renewable energies. The two are complementary”. The current president says that he is trying to manage the energy transition without hurting the economy or imperiling France’s energy independence. In the meantime, “it would be stupid and counterproductive to deprive France of the considerable asset of nuclear energy.” The official Sarkozy campaign site also states that he will “uphold the choice of nuclear power, to avoid any increase in household electricity bills.”

Nicolas Sarkozy tours the nuclear plant at Fessenheim (Source: Flickr / michelsordi

Hollande, too, claims that he would ensure France’s independence on the energy front, but would do so by diversifying its sources, instead. To this end, he vows to encourage the creation and development of industries in the sector, as well as to invest in research programs in disruptive technologies, like electricity storage.

Regarding household costs, contrary to President Sarkozy’s goal, Hollande would change pricing structures for electricity, water and gas, to a progressive system: past certain thresholds, the resource becomes increasingly expensive. Some may see their bills increase, but the Socialist leader hopes this would discourage waste.

More efficient use of resources is something we can all get behind and, indeed, it seems the two candidates often have similar end goals. Their methods of getting there differ, however. Regarding energy, Nicolas Sarkozy seems to be a proponent of the “slow and steady” philosophy, not disrupting the status quo on the way towards incremental change in energy policy. François Hollande wants to move more quickly, it appears, towards commendable goals; will his approach prove viable?

It is a debate not unlike those taking place in many countries of the world right now, and a choice similar to one America will also face, later this year. The specific goals, challenges and arguments will change, but the fundamental question is the same: How can we move toward more sustainable energy, without putting at risk our energy independence and our livelihood? It would pay to keep an eye on countries that are making these choices now, and benefit from their experience as we all move into an uncertain energy future.

To find out more: “French Politics, An American observer comments on French politics”, blog of Arthur Goldhammer, Editorial Board, French Politics, Culture & Society http://artgoldhammer.blogspot.fr/search/label/energy Nicolas Sarkozy v François Hollande: les différences http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/apr/23/french-presidential-election-nicolas-sarkozy-francois-hollande?intcmp=239 “Fessenheim: Splitting the atomic world”, BBC Science & Environment http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14189013