Science in Society Archive

The True Costs of French Nuclear Power

Not only is French nuclear power nowhere near as safe as has been portrayed, it is also far from cost-effective, to put it mildly Susie Greaves

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 [1] (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” [2].

Has nuclear 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 [3] (The Nuclear Black Hole, SiS 40 and  [4] 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 [5]: “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.'

Second, France 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) [5].

 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 [6]: “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 [7] 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 [5]: “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.

Over a 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 [8] “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?”[9], 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 % [5]. 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 [5]: “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.”

Exporting 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 [10].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 [5].

And the French love oil as much as anyone else

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 [5]: “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 ago.”

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) [2]. 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 [11]. 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 [12]. 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 outrageous.

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 energy [2].

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.

The fast 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 [13]. 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 [14] “in total, cumulating investment and operating costs and taking into account all future costs, Superphénix will have cost65billion French francs (11.7 billion euros).”  

The Olkiluoto-3 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 [15].   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 [16]. 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 [17]. The Finnish safety inspector had called a halt to construction between 10 and 15 times and there had already been 3 000 mistakes [18]. The project is now five years behind schedule and at least 3 billion euros over budget.

Construction of the EPR at Flamanville was halted on the first day (in 2007), when inspectors from the ASN reported that [19] “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 [19] 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 [20].

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 [5].

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 [21].


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 [22]. But even this figure, 1.5 billion euros in total, is completely inadequate when we learn that [23]: 'The direct economic cost of the catastrophe to Belarus, Ukraine 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 infrastructure.”

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 [24] 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.

Article first published 23/01/12

References and notes

  1. Greaves S. French nuclear power not safe. Science in Society 53 (to appear).
  2. 'Réussir le passage à la nouvelle ère nucléaire'Bernard Kouchner. Les Echos, 29 April 2008.  19/12/11.
  3. Ho MW. The nuclear black hole. Science in Society 40, 42-45, 2008.
  4. Saunders PT. The real cost of nuclear power. Science in Society 47, 35-39, 2010.
  5. Schneider M (2008). Nuclear Power in France: Beyond the Myth. The Greens/European Free Alliance, accessed 19 December 2011, 
  6. “Reactivating nuclear reactors for the fight against climate change.” David Biello. Scientific American, 27 January, 2009, accessed 19 December 2011,  
  7. “Nucléaire: l’exception française?” (Interview with Bernard Laponche) Christophe Bonneuil and Marc Robert. EcoRev, October 2002, accessed 19 December 2011,
  8. This was said in a parliamentary debate on 7 October 2008, quoted in Le Monde on the same day, accessed 19 December 2011, 
  9. Greenpeace (2007). What Are We Waiting For? (film), accessed 19 December 2011, 
  10. Bonduelle A (2002). Exportations de courant électrique: Qui perd, qui gagne? Greenpeace.
  11. Figures supplied by ANAH  (Agence Nationale pour l'Amélioration de l'Habitat) quoted  by Ademe (Agence de l’environement et de la maitrise de l’energie) in  «Ademe et vous» No 11 3rd April 2008
  12. 'Appel à proposition de soutien à l'innovation PREBAT – Comité bâtiments existants – Réduction de la précarité énergétique', Report produced jointly by PUCA, ANAH, ADEME July 2007  19/12/11.
  13. Davis MB (2002). La France nucléaire: matières et sites. WISE-Paris, Paris. English version available at
  14. Cochran TB, Feiveson HA, Patterson W, Pshakin G, Ramana MV, Schneider M, Suzuki T and von Hippel F (2010). Fast Breeder Programmes: History and Status. International Panel on Fissile Materials.
  15. “Siemans to Quit Nuclear industry.” BBC News, 19 September 2011.  
  16. Fouquet DA (2007). Submission to the Court of First Instance of the European Union.  19/12/11.
  17. “Olkiluoto, Finland – A thickly wooded island off the west coast of Finland is the cradle of the global nuclear renaissance, but it’s been a difficult birth.” Guy Chazan, Wall Street Journal, 30 January 2011.  19/12/11.
  18. “Will nuclear stations be ready before the lights go out?” Justin Rowall, Newsnight, 25 November 2009.
  19. “Flamanville EPR ‘very compromised’”. NuClear News 29, May 2011.   19/12/11
  20. “Nuclear power’s real chain reaction: spiraling costs.” Damian Carrington, Guardian blog, posted 22 July 2011. 19/12/11.
  21. “France moves ahead with nuclear waste project.” David Kestenbaum, NPR, 20 August, 2007. 19/12/11.
  22. Nuclear Energy Agency (2004). Background information note for the press Communiqué on the revision of the Paris Convention on nuclear third party liability and of the Brussels Supplementary Convention. 19/12/11.
  23. Alison Katz in Le Monde Diplomatique, December 2010. The calculation was made in the following way.  The accident at Chernobyl will have cost Belarus 235 billion dollars between 1986 and 2015 according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.The Chernobyl Legacy. Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts and Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.ChernobylForum 2003-2005. 2ndRevised Version. Vienna, April amount spent by all three countries was then estimated at 500 billion dollars and converted into euros (taking into account the lower cost of living in Eastern Europe over the period). The average cost of constructing a nuclear power station is estimated at a billion dollars (though the EPRs at Olkiluoto and Flamanville have already cost 5.6 billion euros and  6 billion euros respectively). There are 470 nuclear power stations worldwide.
  24. According to Antoine Bonduelle in The Journal of Energy No 569 Jan-Feb 2006, “No more than 33 GW of nuclear power would have been built compared to the 63 GW realized. 36 units would have been built.

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There are 12 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

Angelina P. Galang Comment left 24th January 2012 15:03:51
Very good article. This exposition should convince anyone that nuclear energy should be relegated to the dustbins of history.

Bert Schwitters Comment left 25th January 2012 02:02:43
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 22:10:10
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 22:10:31
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 23:11:22
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 23:11:47
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 21:09:34
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 ) 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 31st January 2012 04:04:49
As someone said a long time ago about nuclear power - one hell of a way to boil water !!!

jontatt Comment left 31st January 2012 06:06:35
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 7th February 2012 04:04:40
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 26th June 2012 02:02:05
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 16th September 2014 01:01:28
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.