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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 February 2006, 13:29 GMT
France sticks to nuclear option
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC Paris correspondent

As part of the BBC's Fuelling the Future season, Paris correspondent Caroline Wyatt looks at the issue of nuclear power in France, which relies on nuclear reactors for about 80% of its domestic electricity.

French President Jacques Chirac visits a nuclear submarine
France has military and civilian uses for nuclear power

It may be unfair, but I've always thought of Chernobyl whenever someone mentions nuclear power.

One of my favourite memories of covering the former Soviet Union was our trip to Chernobyl, many years after the accident, to witness one of its reactors being shut down.

The staff there gave us the warmest of welcomes, and invited us to a special picnic lunch in their canteen.

"All home grown," beamed the plump dinner-lady with pride, as she ladled bright purple cabbage onto my plate, accompanied by a salad which included an unusually large red tomato.

All I could think of was what I'd read about the earth around Chernobyl - and how the radiation is soaked up by everything that grows in it, especially salads and berries.

I decided not to think about it, as I ate most of my lunch.

Later on, when we left, we drove through eerily deserted villages, where the vegetation had taken over, growing wild - lush and green - over the crumbling buildings.

Forbidding

I tried to banish all thoughts of Chernobyl from my mind recently as we drove out of Paris to visit the nuclear power station that supplies much of the French capital with electricity.

Inside, it feels as though we've arrived in a curiously 1950s vision of the future
The station at Nogent-sur-Seine is visible from far away.

Out of the flat green fields loom two concrete cooling towers, belching out white smoke, which drifts up into the sullen skies.

The perimeter fence and gates look equally forbidding, and security is tight as we're taken inside. We have to put our cameras and bags through x-ray machines, and use special numbered cards to go through a series of metal gates.

There are no cheery dinner-ladies here, or none that we can see.

Inside, it feels as though we've arrived in a curiously 1950s vision of the future. All around us is utility concrete, grey merging again into the grey of the winter day.

The place feels utterly deserted. Hundreds of people work here, but the only staff we see - apart from the press officers accompanying us - are two men working on some cabling.

Eeriest of all is the silence. The tiny hum of the electricity pylons is the only sign of the immense power harnessed inside this rain-soaked concrete. Somewhere inside, the water is being heated to 300 degrees by the chain reaction of nuclear fission.

Misgivings

I find my thoughts drifting off though as the press officer tries to explain the exact workings of nuclear fission.

I remember the words of the nuclear physicist we'd interviewed a few days before. Now in his 60s, Dr Bernard Laponche is retired, but for many years he worked on the French government's nuclear programme.

French anti-nuclear protesters

Once a fan of the process, he has turned into a born-again opponent. "Nuclear power," he told me, "is the most dangerous way to boil water that mankind has ever invented."

France, though, decided long ago that nuclear power was the path to energy independence, a decision taken by General de Gaulle in the 1950s.

Thanks to the scientific knowledge France had acquired in developing its nuclear weapons programme, the nation could convert that know-how into civil use.

n 1973, France attached the first civil nuclear reactor to the electricity grid. It must have seemed then like a brave new world - especially when global instability sent oil prices soaring in the 1970s.

Any public misgivings about nuclear power were soothed with tax breaks and jobs for the towns the reactors were built near. And the might of the state in France meant there was no agonising planning process to go through.

Storage problem

Today France has 58 reactors, producing 80% of the country's electricity, with more reactors in the offing.

Recently, another French President, Jacques Chirac, proudly announced that work had begun on the fourth generation of nuclear reactors, which should be able to re-use some nuclear waste as a source of energy.

How do you know it will still be safe a thousand years from now
Bernard Laponche
For the most part, the French accept how their energy is produced. An opinion poll showed that 52% were in favour; just 36% against.

Many say that if it helps lower greenhouse gas emissions, then the risks and the costs are worth it.

Yet according to opponents of nuclear power in France, public misgivings are growing - a shift that could be exacerbated later this year when the French government is to decide how to store the country's nuclear waste in the long-term.

A lengthy scientific study has just been completed, suggesting that it should be safe to store much of France's nuclear waste deep in the French earth in a stable layer of rock for thousands of years.

Bernard Laponche isn't convinced. "How do you know it will still be safe a thousand years from now?", he asks.

And to that there is no real answer, not even from the press officers at Nogent-sur-Seine, which we leave just as a wintry dusk settles over the cooling towers.

I was secretly relieved that we hadn't been invited to lunch. I wouldn't have liked to spoil the memory of my picnic at Chernobyl.


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