- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

CHALON-SUR-SAONE, France

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 drill 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 in North America, Europe and Asia is thinking nuclear.

France has done perhaps the most to push back the pendulum.

As the only European country that continued making nuclear plants after Chernobyl, France has up-to-date expertise that it is eager 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 greater dangers to the planet.

Positioned for’renaissance’

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.

Not everyone is softening on nuclear power. Sweden and Germany are shutting down, not starting up, reactors. But Britain, Italy and the Netherlands are talking about the nuclear option. Although it is only talk, it is groundbreaking given a 20-year taboo on the topic in the three countries.

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

France’s key partner in promoting that renaissance is unexpected: the United States. After two decades on the defensive, French and U.S. 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 electric utility, Electricite de France (EDF), and nuclear group Areva, the key to France’s international nuclear influence.

French model

France is selling more than electricity and reactor parts. It is 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.

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

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 Miss Gassin. “Nuclear is the French identity.”

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 problems.

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

Luck vs. safety

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

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

London-based energy analyst David Bryant said the French government has made safety paramount because it is the key to keeping the crucial industry afloat. Now, as more governments join research into the next generation of reactors, the industry says Generation IV will be the most efficient, 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 past 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.

Although 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.

Energy allies

The Bush administration has enraged environmental groups with its “alternative energy” plan. While promising money for wind and solar energy, the plan 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 predicted during their clashes over Iraq. Former U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham this month was appointed chairman of the board of Areva Inc., the company’s U.S. operation.

President Bush and Mr. Chirac have visited India and snared major nuclear-energy contracts. They even consulted with each other to ensure their stances were in sync. Critics accuse both leaders 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. Although 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), the EU statistics agency reports.

Renewed debate

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.

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

Some, though, have switched sides.

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

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

The plan’s architect? France.

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