French nuclear future hangs in the balance

A top French nuclear official has raised a worryingly large question mark over France’s nuclear future as the sector is struggling to decide on a 50-year lifespan for its reactors.

Francois Hollande’s government has declined to endorse another extension beyond the current lifespan, making this a valid option for France to consider.

The nuclear lobby insists that if France simply presses ahead with a two-thirds increase in the current operating capacity, the bill will be simply too high for consumers.

But what’s missing is a real sense of urgency, or at least a declaration of intention by the French government.

Edwige Montandonelli, a leading French lawyer in nuclear fields, told the Guardian: “The government has little control over the nuclear power industry. There’s a clear lack of progress towards an agreement that is binding on France’s nuclear installations. It’s extraordinary that the head of state who has all the standing in the world is powerless to make a decision about nuclear energy. This is an aberration that can’t go on.”

But how French society will react to the decision, which is currently all that remains in doubt, is anything but clear.

Despite these issues, Hollande intends to keep to his promise to create one million jobs by 2018, even if as one poll last month found nearly half of French people thought that the government’s green policies were hurting the environment.

A defiant Nicolas Sarkozy, however, has twice tried to extend the life of France’s reactors, only to lose in court.

There are only 12 reactors currently operational in France and the first one to reach retirement age will be site for decommissioning and work on building the new reactor of a new reactor in 2025.

From that point, France will require another two dozen new reactors, which will most likely be built in France and cost an estimated €100bn to €200bn.

First announced by President Charles de Gaulle in 1951, nuclear energy has played a key role in French politics. Its role has declined in recent years due to falling public support for nuclear power, as well as the fear that global warming is far more serious than some people thought.

But nuclear remains vital to France’s economy and environment. This is why before the election in May, and then after Hollande took office in May, it was clear that an extension to the nuclear industry’s operating life would be a done deal.

France’s power sector was said to be key to the future of his campaign.

But for those who remember how the World Cup led to the protests on the Métro, Hollande’s pro-nuclear policy may not be so easily seen through.

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