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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 October, 2003, 18:06 GMT 19:06 UK
France's nuclear option
Alexandra Fouche
By Alexandra Fouché
BBC News Online

As Europe struggles to deal with ever-increasing energy demands, France's industry minister is backing a new generation of nuclear power stations.

The rest of western Europe has been turning its back on the nuclear option, on economic or environmental grounds.

The superphenix reactor at Creys Malville
France's 58 nuclear reactors are on average 18 years old
But France, which already produces more of its electricity in nuclear plants than any other country in the world - nearly 80% - may be on the verge of a big new commitment.

"France cannot do without nuclear energy," Industry Minister Nicole Fontaine said on Wednesday.

On Thursday Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's office issued a statement emphasising that no decision had been taken.

It said a consultation paper would be issued in a few weeks' time as a basis for public debate - and that "ambitious" measures to control demand and plans to reinforce the role of renewable energy would also feature prominently.

Power shortages

The French move comes in the wake of a nationwide power cut in Italy, which highlighted the country's dependency on imported energy, and massive power cuts in Denmark, Sweden and the UK.

Map showing location of nuclear power stations in France

France and the rest of Europe are also counting the cost of a hot dry summer which saw demand for power rise, as air conditioning systems worked overtime, while shortages of cooling water led to a fall in output.

Italy experienced serious power shortages throughout the summer, some of which were blamed on an interrupted supply from France.

But France is the only country in the region publicly considering a new generation of nuclear power plants.

Belgium and Germany are committed to closing all their nuclear power stations within the next two decades. Both countries have also banned new nuclear reactors and are making increased use of solar, wind and other renewable energy resources.

The UK has no plans to replace the current generation of nuclear power stations.

Italy is dismantling its four generating plants following a vote against nuclear power in a referendum in 1987, while Spain has a moratorium on construction of new plants.

Referendum call

Ms Fontaine's unexpected statement prompted an outcry from environmentalists, who accused her of caving in to lobbying from the nuclear industry.

It is 10% cheaper compared with current nuclear power plants, so it will allow for a decrease of the price of electricity
Nicole Fontaine
Industry Minister
"Mrs Fontaine displays profound contempt for the national debating process on energy she herself initiated," said Helene Gassin of Greenpeace France.

Some critics called for a referendum.

Ms Fontaine said she was backing a new, sophisticated Franco-German reactor called the EPR (European Pressurised-Water Reactor) which was much safer and cheaper than existing plants.

"It is 10% cheaper compared with current nuclear power plants, so it will allow for a decrease of the price of electricity," she said, during the unveiling in parliament of a report by MP Jean Bresson.

"It produces less nuclear waste than the current nuclear [system]," she added.

Lives prolonged

The minister argues France cannot afford to wait for more sophisticated fourth-generation reactors not due to come online until 2040 and cannot wholly rely on alternative sources of energy.

But environmentalists say a decision on new reactors does not have to be made for another decade at least.

They also reject the view that the new reactors are not significantly cheaper or safer.

EPR is a joint Franco-German project between French group Areva and Germany's Siemens and its construction is set to cost 3bn euros.

The country's 58 nuclear plants are run by the state-owned Electricite de France company (EdF), and have an average age of 18 years.

EdF last week extended their operating life by 10 years to 40 years.

Government sources say about a third of the country's nuclear plants will have been in use for 40 years by 2025 and it is not certain their life can be further prolonged.

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