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Sarkozy Vows to Keep EDF Nuclear Plant Open, Defying Rival

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy vowed to keep the Fessenheim nuclear plant open after Francois Hollande, his Socialist Party rival in an election starting in April, promised to close the site because of safety concerns.

“I will never accept the closing of Fessenheim for political reasons,” Sarkozy said on a visit to the station in eastern France on the Rhine river across from Germany. “Closing it would be a scandal. It would be to the detriment of our industry, to the detriment of our economic independence.”

The fate of Electricite de France SA’s Fessenheim divides Sarkozy, seeking re-election amid weak poll ratings by pledging to guide the economy through the euro-region crisis, from Socialists who aim to cut French dependence on atomic power. EDF’s fleet of 58 nuclear reactors are needed to provide cheap power for households and industry, according to the president.

Critics of atomic power have increased their demands for development plans to be rolled back and older stations to be closed since the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan last year. After protests in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel decided to phase out atomic power and has already closed eight reactors. Switzerland and Italy are also backing away from nuclear.

France is more reliant on nuclear energy than any country. EDF’s reactors, on average 25 years old, provide about three-quarters of electricity produced in the country. Fessenheim’s two reactors began operating in 1977 and 1978. As power demand reached a record two days ago because of a cold snap in Europe, 63 percent of power used at the peak was atomic, France said.

‘Not for Ideology’

“If I had had any doubts as to the safety of this plant, I’d have had no hesitation to close it,” Sarkozy said today. “But if you are going to close a nuclear plant, it has to be for safety reasons, not for ideology.” French households pay half as much for energy as German families, he said.

Socialists and Greens agreed last year on a common platform to shut 24 nuclear reactors by 2025, which the government said would be costly and raise power prices. Hollande has since said he would reduce dependence on atomic power to 50 percent by 2025, without specifying how many reactors would be shut.

EDF is the biggest nuclear operator and plans to export its technology to China and the U.K. The industry, also including Areva SA, employs an estimated 200,000 people in France.

About 600 million euros ($800 million) had been spent in the past five years to improve French reactors, Sarkozy said, adding he would keep investing in nuclear. Replacing output at Fessenheim would cost 400 million euros a year or mean covering the local Alsace region with 2,500 wind turbines, he said.

France’s atomic safety authority has ordered EDF and other atomic operators to carry out billions of euros of measures to bolster defenses against extreme situations such as the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Fukushima catastrophe.

The watchdog told EDF it can run Unit 1 at Fessenheim for another decade if its base concrete is reinforced and an alternative cooling source installed. EDF says work has begun.

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