Please circulate widely and repost, but you must give the URL of the original and preserve all the links back to articles on our website
The French nuclear
programme has been portrayed by successive French governments as a huge
achievement, providing the country with a plentiful supply of energy, ensuring
oil independence and avoiding excessive carbon dioxide emissions. In the
previous article of this series, I have shown that the French nuclear power is
not as safe as proponents in France and all over the world would have us
believe  (French
Nuclear Power Not Safe, SiS 53). There remains the question of whether it is
really cheap, as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in 2008: “ …a clean
and cheap source of energy” .
power provided cost-effective energy? To answer this question we need first to
understand the competitive edge enjoyed by the industry, both internally over
other forms of energy production, and when compared with the nuclear industry
in other countries (but see 
(The Nuclear Black
Hole, SiS 40 and  The Real Cost
of Nuclear Power, SiS 47).
The dice are loaded
The nuclear industry in France has gained great
economic benefit from the government’s specific instruction that it should work
together with the nuclear weapons programme. The 1973 CEA (Commissariat
à l’Energie Atomique) annual report explains : “The CEA must, within the
framework of a rigid budget and strictly limited possibilities of expansion, adapt
the production of military nuclear material to rapidly changing needs by taking
advantage of technical progress and civilian programs (which themselves have
greatly benefited from military programs) in order to limit the costs."
has avoided the costly democratic process of public inquiries and licensing
procedures. Decisions are made by an elite that moves between the industry and
the regulatory bodies to inform energy ministers of the industry’s needs rather
than request permission for development. For instance, the decision to build
the EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) at Flamanville was taken in 2006 without
a parliamentary debate; Greenpeace referred to the French Deputies as EPRs “Elus Pour Rien”
(Elected for Nothing) .
Third, nuclear power projects in France always receive low interest
government loans, and without them, new nuclear power stations would probably
not be built at all. The World Bank has not financed nuclear projects for
several decades, and the Asian Development Bank (many new nuclear projects are
in Asia) has never done so. In the United States, there have been no new nuclear
projects since the 1970s. The Obama administration indicated tentative support for nuclear power, but
after a seemingly fruitless debate about what type of reactor should be built, and
about who would bear the cost, nothing has come of it. As Amory Lovins, an
energy expert at the Rocky Mountain Institute put it : “The only people in the
world who buy nuclear power plants are central planners, whether they are in
governments like China or Japan, or TVA, (Tennessee Valley Authority) which is
an unaccountable public utility."
Finally, the lack of
competition (EDF was state owned until 2005) allowed
France to develop a vast fleet of nuclear power stations with huge potential
generating capacity.Yet this is exactly the point where doubts arise
about the real cost effectiveness of the French nuclear industry.
Who needs all this electricity?
Following the oil crisis in 1973,
France aimed to become independent of the oil-rich nations, and a huge number
of new nuclear power stations were built. The Messmer plan  in the 1970s
proposed 60 new reactors in ten years and assumed an
increase in demand from 170 billion kWh in 1974 to 1 000 billion kWh in 2000. In
the event, only 470 billion kWh was required. There had been an assumption all
over the industrialized world that energy consumption would double every ten
years, but the relationship between economic development and energy consumption
had changed. Instead of adapting to the new situation, the energy establishment
in France and elsewhere in Europe encouraged consumption of electricity rather
than deal with this phenomenal overcapacity. Schneider said : “This was the
death knell for any significant intelligent energy initiative based on
efficiency and conservation.”
The nuclear industry in
France contrived two methods of disposing of its surplus. One was to persuade the French to use more electricity in their homes. The
other was toexport electricity to other countries.These two
policies were responses to a fundamentally flawed system and closer examination
reveals how costly they are.
number of decades, pressure from the French government ensured that 70 % of new housing used electricity for space and water heating and for
cooking. This was good news for the building industry as the systems used are
less expensive to install than other central heating systems, but it tied the
consumer in to permanently high levels of electricity consumption. This policy was
described in 2008 by the Minister of State for Ecology Nathalie Kosciusko-
Morizet as an error and  “an aberration from a
thermodynamic point of view.” Three quarters of the energy is lost in the form
of waste heat and distribution losses before the electricity is re-transformed
into heat in people’s homes. (Transforming a primary energy source into
electricity makes little economic sense, if you can use that energy source (e.g.,
gas or oil) directly for heating and cooking. In this regard, see the excellent
film by Greenpeace called “What are we waiting for?”, which explains why the UK should
follow the example set by Denmark and construct small combined heat and power
stations to serve a city or a locality. In theUK, the power stations that provide
the majority of energy have hardly changed in 50 years, and lose two thirds of
the energy produced in waste heat that enters rivers or the air. The new CHP
stations can be 95 % efficient. Greenpeace argues that we could go a long way
to solving many of our energy problems with these technologies alone.). The
real irony is that, having persuaded one quarter of the French to heat their
homes with electricity, the nuclear share of each additional kWh consumed by
electric space heating is as low as 10 % . The rest comes largely from
fossil fuels. So much for the low carbon emissions of the world’s loudest
promoter of nuclear power! Schneider sums the situation up with devastating
clarity : “The constant invitation to waste electricity in the form
of heat (space heating, hot water, cooking) has constantly guaranteed the
French household the highest consumption level in Europe since 1976. Today, per
capita electricity consumption in France is some 25% higher than in Italy (which phased out nuclear energy after the Chernobyl
accident in 1986) and 15% higher than the EU27 average.”
energy has been equally disastrous economically.France exports electricity when
demand, and therefore the price, is low, whereas it imports electricity at peak
periods when the price is very high. In the 1980s,Francewas earning more from exporting than
it paid to import but the trend has changed. In 2007, maximum daily capacity
mobilized for export was 14 GWh while imports reached 12 GWh.According to a report in 2002, the
official revenues from exports between 1995 and 2001 did not cover the
generating costs. Annual losses varied between a minimum of €800 million and a
maximum €6 billion .The
situation during periods of peak demand became so dire in 2006 that France
found itself in the ridiculous position of having to reinstate old oil-fired
power stations to generate electricity during peak periods .
And the French love oil as much as
The old boast about energy
independence is put into sharp relief by the
following statistics. In 2007, after three decades of nuclear power, 73 % of
final energy in France was provided by fossil fuels, of which 48 % was oil (!)
with nuclear energy providing only 16 %. The reason is transport, in particular,
the use of the car. Schneider said : “It is a clear historic lesson that if
independence of oil imports had really been the driving force behind energy
policy in France, the transport sector would have been focused on a long time
Fuel poverty hits France
Let us look more closely
at what this enormous consumption
of electricity means for the French consumer. Using the Purchasing Power
Standards (rather than using a straight comparison of costs) puts France in
third place in the EU for providing the cheapest electricity (0.1211 per kWh) . But the low cost of electricity does not
necessarily translate into low energy bills. The quarter of French households
that use electricity to heat their homes, their water and for cooking might not
agree that energy bills in France are low.
As usual, it
is the poor who are hit the hardest, paying a much larger proportion of their
income on energy than do the rich. According to ADEME ( Agence de l’environnement
et de la maitrise de l’énergie) three million households are cold in winter and
are considered to be in fuel poverty . Most of these households receive
help from the government in the form of reduced bills, and the number of
demands is increasing by about 15 % per year. Public expenditure to help with
energy bills totals 150 to 200 million euros per year . Other countries in
Europe have similar numbers of people in fuel poverty but given what we now
know about the encouragement by successive French governments to squander
electricity, in order to prop up the nuclear industry, this state of affairs is
Some hard facts
Discovering real facts and figures
about what the French government has spent on producing nuclear energy over the
last decades is notoriously difficult. But there are some clues. Three quarters
of public research between 1985 and 2001 went to the nuclear industry. The
situation has improved recently so that in 1997, research
into efficiency savings and all renewable energies made up a mere 1% of research
funds, whereas in 2008, 7% went to efficiency savings and 5% to renewable
For some concrete spending figures, we could examine three individual nuclear
projects: one from the 1980s, the ill-fated Super Phénix project, and the two
current flagships of the French nuclear industry that are being constructed, in
Finland and in France.
breeder reactor Super Phénix at Creys Malville was set up in 1986 and produced
electricity at full power for only 174 days of its operational life . It
was closed in 1998 after enormous public opposition (and the death of a
demonstrator) and doubts about its viability even within EDF. In 1996 at the
Court of Auditors, Jacques Chauvin, the president of NERSA, the consortium that
owned the plant ( EDF had a 51 % share), stated that  “in total, cumulating
investment and operating costs and taking into account all future costs,
Superphénix will have cost65billion French francs (11.7 billion
project in Finland for the construction of an EPR is a Franco-German enterprise
known as AREVA NP. The German share of the project is owned by the company
Siemens who, interestingly, announced recently that they were pulling out of
all future nuclear projects for economic reasons . Funding for the
project comes partly from the Bavarian Landesbank, where Siemens headquarters
is located. They have lent 1.95 billion euros which is 60% of the contract
value, at a preferential rate of 2% interest. The French public export credit
agency COFACE has loaned 570 million euros . Construction began in 2005 and
the project has been dogged with problems ever since. The Finnish Authorities
have accused AREVA of inadequate planning, of employing sub contractors who
lack experience in the nuclear field, and of changes in personnel leading to
confusion and lack of overall responsibility . The Finnish safety inspector
had called a halt to construction between 10 and 15 times and there had already
been 3 000 mistakes . The project is now five years behind schedule and at
least 3 billion euros over budget.
of the EPR at Flamanville was halted on the first day (in 2007), when inspectors
from the ASN reported that  “basic technical specifications and procedures
have not been respected including the concrete mixture, the input level and the
concrete test sample filing.” As at Olkiluoto 3, there has been a steady stream
of safety concerns and in 2011, the President of the ASN (the French Nuclear Safety Authority), Andre-Claude
Lacoste said  he “could not rule out” a moratorium on the nuclear reactor
under construction at Flamanville and the ASN have expressed doubts about
whether the second EPR, planned at Penly, will ever get off the ground. Flamanville
is now expected to produce electricity in 2016, four years later than planned,
and 2.7 billion euros over budget .
Decommissioning: a drain on
resources for centuries ahead
The French nuclear industry is no
different from the nuclear industry worldwide in its ostrich-like approach to the problems of decommissioning. But in
2006, it had to account for itself before a commission that included government
representatives and independent experts. The future costs of decommissioning were
estimated at 65 billion euros for the three main French operators. However as these
already colossal figures have been reached through a process so riven with
conflict and uncertainty, it is only sensible to view the estimate as the
absolute minimum that will be required .
For example, while the
industry believes that all long-lived and intermediate wastes should be
reprocessed because they believe this represents the cheapest geological
disposal option, this view is contradicted by other national and international
studies. Estimates for the management of spent fuel (only part of the
decommissioning process) vary by a factor of 4, between
13.5 billion and 58 billion euros. A second problem neatly illustrates what
happens when an industry that has thrived on secrecy and propaganda finally needs
help from the public. The search for sites to bury nuclear waste has been going
on for thirty years, and in the 1990s, the government was still hopeful of
finding a “volunteer site”. They encountered fierce opposition wherever they
went and in 2006 government legislation set a deadline to this fruitless
search. A site was then selected at Bure in Eastern
France but despite the 9 million euros that have been spent on schools and roads
in the region to sweeten the pill, there is still a thriving opposition
movement, demanding a moratorium on all underground disposal of nuclear waste
Insuring against a major accident
Before 2004, EDF had the
lowest liability limit in Europe, for costs in the event of a nuclear accident.
The French industry was suspected of underestimating the true costs. In 2004, amendments
were made in the Paris and Brussels Convention, and the obligatory liability
cap for the operator was raised from 5 million to 700 million euros, with the
state contributing 500 million euros and the contracting parties an additional
300 million euros . But even this figure, 1.5 billion euros in total, is completely
inadequate when we learn that : "The direct economic cost of the catastrophe to Belarus,
and Russia, over 20 years, exceeds 500 billion dollars - which in terms of the
cost of living in the European community represents more than 2000 billion
Euros; as much as if not more than the cost of the world’s entire nuclear
The wider picture
The nuclear industry in
France appears to provide cheap electricity but only if viewed through a very
narrow prism, that is, the price per k/Wh charged to the consumer. We have seen
that this does not translate anyway into low energy bills for many French
people. However, the real cost implications lie elsewhere. The industry developed
without the hindrance of democratic control. Had it been open to public scrutiny,
several things would have become obvious early on, rather than coming to light
half a century later. The enormous over-capacity of the French nuclear industry
 led to ad hoc solutions
that make no economic sense. Nuclear power stations need to operate at full
power to be cost- effective. France is the only country in the world that
closes reactors down at weekends. Exporting electricity could never have been a
part of the original plan. Using electricity for space and water heating is an absurdity
in energy terms and is now recognised as such even by French Ministers. The
issue of decommissioning is a major environmental problem, whose costs will
have to be budgeted for over centuries, even if nuclear production stops
tomorrow. And finally, there is the unthinkable, the major accident, whose
costs would dwarf everything mentioned so far, as they have in the areas
contaminated by Chernobyl.
Governments that are planning to build
new reactors often point to France as an example of how they can be both safe
and cost-effective. When we look closely, however, the picture is quite
different. There is nothing in the experience of France that should encourage
us to rely on nuclear power.
The author lives in France and is a member of
IndependentWHO, Sortir du Nucleaire and CRIIRAD. She is translating Wladimir
Tchertkoff's book Le
crime de Tchernobyl: le gulag nucleaire, published by Actes Sud 2006 from
French into English.
Angelina P. Galang Comment left 24th January 2012 04:04:51 Very good article. This exposition should convince anyone that nuclear energy should be relegated to the dustbins of history.
Bert Schwitters Comment left 24th January 2012 15:03:43 When ...
"Transforming a primary energy source into electricity makes little economic sense, if you can use that energy source (e.g., gas or oil) directly for heating and cooking."
... why is it that electric cars should replace the combustion-driven ones ?
John Hart Comment left 25th January 2012 11:11:10 Since this article starts with a clear bias against nuclear power it's no surprise that it marshals quite a body of "evidence" in support of that position. Third generation reactors now entering service will prove to be even safer and more productive than current units and at lower cost. The generation after that, patterned on the proven US IFR (Integral Fast Reactor) design will be able to power the world for millenia at lower cost than anything currently running and are incapable of experiencing meltdowns or dangerous accidents. They also consume the dangerous wastes existing reactors have produced to date leaving a small residue that is radiologically safe in 300 years and thus needs no expensive and uncertain permanent waste disposal sites. The IFR design can also burn up 99% plus of the reactive elements in their fuel vs. 0.7% for current reactors, which extends the useful life of fuel by over 100 times, and in turn means (combined with burning up 60 years of accumulated waste from current reactors) a dramatic reduction in uranium mining and fuel costs. In the end, nuclear power is the only currently known way to generate the massive amounts of power modern societies require in a clean, safe and environmentally benign manner. Just research the alternatives carefully, dispassionately, and without preconceptions or bias and you will see that this is true.
David Hodges Comment left 25th January 2012 11:11:31 Electric cars have many advantages over combustion engines - they are much quieter, require far less maintenance (= much cheaper) and electric engines are much more efficient than combustion engines -
see the excellent documentary Who Killed The Electric Car ?
Greg Palast has written an alarming article on nuclear safety - apparently the backup diesel generators supposed to prevent a meltdown if the plant is unexpectedly shut down are for show only - they never actually work -
Todd Millions Comment left 26th January 2012 12:12:22 Exellent overveiw-Adding too it,One must broach the buying up of the type of electric tranformer used too tie wind turbine farms too grids by -EdeF(and a holding shell of same).If memory serves,wasn't there a EU fine too the french nuke mafia over purchase too remove from market,over all available submarine power cable needed too tie in existing danish wind capacity too Holand-via NORWAY?Apparently a 400meter over head line at Keil too the existing substation for Cologne being insurmoutable in its difficulties!
Both areva and EdeF(oredf) are quite thick here in the frosty bannana republic,being suprised and pleased that our ever prewhored politicians,experts and pundits are even cheaper drunks than the Finnish ones.More is beyond this but suffice too say one can get almost anything hearabouts with a triffling contribution too facilities or teams for hockeybation.
Phil Risby Comment left 29th January 2012 12:12:47 In response to Bert, and if I may, a correction to the body of the paper, transforming energy from an energy source to the point of use should always be chosen to be the most efficient. As every transformation is less than 100% efficient, then it would appear logical that fewer steps would be best. However, two steps at 70% efficient is still better than one step at 40% efficiency. Fuel to motive power may be better through fuel cell and electric motors with batteries as short term on demand storage. What should concern us is the overall efficiency, not the number of transforms.
In response to John, the article does have a predisposition against nuclear power, but that does not change facts, it selects certain facts. It is interesting and valid to note that if current nuclear technologies were oversold to us then and continue to be oversold to us now, then where is the basis to assume that IFR reactors are also not being oversold to us now.
When trust is broken between an industry sector and the public, the first issue should be the basis to re-establish confidence in what we are being told, rather to naively jump back into bed with the industry.
Susie Greaves Comment left 30th January 2012 10:10:34 If John Hart wants to challenge the evidence, (or “evidence” as he puts it) in my article about nuclear safety in France, he should do so in a constructive and honest way. My article is fully referenced, much of the information coming from the French nuclear industry itself.
Integrated Fast Reactors do not represent new technology. They are the latest version of the fast breeder reactor which has appeared in various forms since the dawn of the nuclear age. After vast amounts of money into research and development (50 billion dollars world wide) they have been abandoned by the US, the UK, Germany and France, and of the handful in operation, none has been commercially successful because the technology is dogged with safety problems. Any interested reader should investigate the Super Phenix project in France (abandoned in 1996 after ten years in operation, producing electricity at full power for only 174 days, at a cost of 11.7 billion euros to the French tax payer) or Monju, in Japan (achieved criticality in 1994, sodium leak and fire in 1995, and still not operational).
Their main attraction was to provide (supposedly) an endless supply of uranium, but this is no longer a relevant concern, as the demand for uranium was hugely overestimated by the nuclear industry. The technology has not solved problems of nuclear waste storage and conventional reprocessing has proved cheaper. A February 2010 report of the International Panel on Fissile Materials on the history and status of fast breeder technology (available at http://www.ipfmlibrary.org/rr08.pdf ) concludes with this sentence, regarding the reason why the US stopped funding the Integrated Fast Reactor and other fast breeders. “Although there are safety issues generic to liquid metal fast reactors, it does not appear that they were the predominant reasons for the demise of the breeder program in the United States. More important were proliferation concerns and a growing conviction that breeder reactors would not be needed or economically competitive with light-water reactors for decades, if ever.”
Phil Risby Comment left 30th January 2012 17:05:49 As someone said a long time ago about nuclear power - one hell of a way to boil water !!!
jontatt Comment left 30th January 2012 19:07:35 Fast breeders as I read convert unfissionable U238 to Pu239 ,which can then be refined and fed back in with more U238.I believe Thorium reactors produce fissionable U233 and can also digest the other actinides.The UK has about 110 tons of purified plutonium ( enough for 20-30 thousand bombs ) a vast potential wealth if it can be burnt without producing more problems or a terrible legacy for biblical numbers of generations to come. Thus the uk has has some sort of nuclear industry whatever is done.Once upon a time Steam boilers blew up ,bridges fell down,train speeds were more than mankind could bear and planes could never fly.
Rory Short Comment left 6th February 2012 17:05:40 We should not forget that the nuclear power industry was spawned by the nuclear weapons industry post WWII. Defence contractors are not known for their concern for the preservation of human life and their openness to public scrutiny it is therefore not surprising that the nuclear power industry exhibits the same characteristics.
John Fryer Comment left 25th June 2012 18:06:05 John Hart tells the story of nuclear power in the future with reactor designs that were scrapped as impossible to make 20 years ago.
Liquid sodium presents just one more hazard on top of that of nuclear fission products.
We have one source of nuclear power only that is presently safe for man and that is our sun.
Nuclear power was presented to the world as a source of cheap energy and so safe that to date nobody has died from its bad effects.
The truth, plain for all to see is that major accidents are settling down at one every couple of decades or so. The true cost is so high that subsidies are vital. The waste products are building up to levels where their loss to the environment is almost welcomed.
Man made products are returning the world to that of a billion years ago when large mammals existence was not possible.
Deaths and missing people never born in the region of Chernobyl are not at the level quoted by the world health or atomic industry (few dozens) and not at the million level of those with common sense but probably many times higher.
Deaths in Japan need careful watching as they mount.
Jody L Carr Comment left 15th September 2014 17:05:28 Nuclear is hard to clean up after an episode. After Chernobyl the people started dying and suffering from exposure. The land is wasted and nothing grows there, you couldn't eat the food produced from that area, so it is not a safe alternative to anything. My missionary friends stationed in Switzerland have both died within 5 yrs of that event.