France's Election Heats Up over Nuclear Power

France’s presidential race is rocked by a pledge to limit nuclear energy

For decades the French political elite has agreed that nuclear energy is the best way to power the nation, and today France gets nearly three-quarters of its electricity from its 58 reactors—a far greater share than any other country. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan last March, though, unified support for nuclear power is crumbling.

On Nov. 15 the opposition Socialist and Green parties issued a joint pledge to close 24 reactors by 2025. The statement was a compromise between the Socialists, who seek to boost use of renewable energy, and the Greens, who want to ban nukes. Under the proposal, the country’s oldest plant, 33-year-old Fessenheim near the Swiss border, would be shut down immediately if the Socialists win the presidential election next spring. The plan is “about moving progressively away from all-oil for transport and all-nuclear for electricity,” Socialist leader François Hollande wrote in an opinion piece in Le Monde.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces a strong challenge from Hollande in the election, says the plan would lead to hundreds of thousands of job losses, higher electricity rates, and an exodus of heavy industry. “We should not return to an era of candlelight,” Sarkozy told reporters on Nov. 25 during a tour of a uranium enrichment facility under construction at Tricastin, in southeastern France. “This isn’t the time to go back to the Middle Ages, to medieval fears when people were scared of progress.”

Opinion polls show support for atomic energy has eroded since Fukushima. Forty percent of the French are “hesitant” about nukes while a third are in favor and 17 percent are against, according to a survey by pollster Ifop published on Nov. 13. Nearly two-thirds of supporters of Sarkozy’s governing UMP party say they back nuclear power, while half of Socialist supporters are unsure.

France’s nuclear program was started under President Charles de Gaulle in a bid to make the country self-sufficient in electricity. Between 1978 and 2002, 58 reactors were commissioned. State-controlled utility Electricité de France and nuclear technology developer Areva are building a 59th at Flamanville and are planning another at Penly, both on the English Channel.

Before the political debate erupted, EDF announced that the annual bill for maintaining French reactors could more than double by 2015 as the utility seeks to prolong their lives. EDF may also be forced to increase spending on safety measures following audits by the French atomic regulator as a result of Fukushima. The utility’s shares have fallen about 40 percent since the Japanese accident, including a 9 percent drop in the two days after the unveiling of the Socialist/Green plan.

On the campaign trail, Green candidate Eva Joly has called French Industry Minister Eric Besson a “nucleopath” for his unwavering support of atomic energy. In a speech to Parliament, Besson countered that the Socialists “want us to believe that nuclear engineers and other workers can overnight become installers of solar panels and wind turbines. … We have to stop this masquerade.”

As economic growth slows and unemployment rises amid the European debt crisis, nuclear jobs will be a focus of the debate, potentially dividing left-leaning voters. Many Socialist lawmakers are staunch supporters of atomic energy, and labor unions have long backed nukes. “The French are a bit baffled by the nuclear question,” says Jérôme Fourquet, a director at Ifop. “Nuclear power wasn’t necessarily popular in France, but it was accepted.”

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