Nuclear power in France
Nuclear power is a major source of energy in France, with a 40% share of energy consumption in 2015. Nuclear power is the largest source of electricity in the country, with a generation of 379.1 TWh, or 71.6% of the country's total production of 519.4 TWh, the highest percentage in the world.
Électricité de France (EDF) – the country's main electricity generation and distribution company – manages the country's 58 power reactors. EDF is substantially owned by the French Government, with around 85% shares in government hands.
France exported 38 TWh of electricity to its neighbours in 2017. France becomes a net-importer of electricity when demand exceeds supply, in rare cases of very inclement weather, because of the lack of more flexible generating plants.
- 1 History
- 2 Management and economics
- 3 Technical overview
- 4 Operational considerations
- 5 Accidents and incidents
- 6 Nuclear safety
- 7 Public opinion
- 8 Environmental impact
- 9 Fusion research
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
France has a long relationship with nuclear power, starting with Henri Becquerel's discovery of natural radioactivity in the 1890s and continued by famous nuclear scientists like Pierre and Marie Curie.
Before World War II, France had been mainly involved in nuclear research through the work of the Joliot-Curies. In 1945 the Provisional Government of the French Republic (GPRF) created the Commissariat à l'Énergie Atomique (CEA) governmental agency, and Nobel prize winner Frédéric Joliot-Curie, member of the French Communist Party (PCF) since 1942, was appointed high-commissioner. He was relieved of his duties in 1950 for political reasons, and would be one of the 11 signatories to the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955. The CEA was created by Charles de Gaulle on 18 October 1945. Its mandate is to conduct fundamental and applied research into many areas, including the design of nuclear reactors, the manufacturing of integrated circuits, the use of radionuclides for medical treatments, seismology and tsunami propagation, and the safety of computerized systems.
Nuclear research was discontinued for a time after the war because of the instability of the Fourth Republic and the lack of finances available. However, in the 1950s a civil nuclear research program was started, a by-product of which would be plutonium. In 1956 a secret Committee for the Military Applications of Atomic Energy was formed and a development program for delivery vehicles started. In 1957, soon after the Suez Crisis and the diplomatic tension with both the USSR and the United States, French president René Coty decided the creation of the C.S.E.M. in what was then French Sahara, a new nuclear testing facility replacing the CIEES testing facility. See France and nuclear weapons.
The first nuclear power plant by EDF in France was opened in 1962.
As a direct result of the 1973 oil crisis, on 6 March 1974 Prime Minister Pierre Messmer announced what became known as the 'Messmer Plan', a huge nuclear power program aimed at generating all of France's electricity from nuclear power. At the time of the oil crisis most of France's electricity came from foreign oil. Nuclear power allowed France to compensate for its lack of indigenous energy resources by applying its strengths in heavy engineering. The situation was summarized in a slogan: "In France, we do not have oil, but we have ideas."
The announcement of the Messmer Plan, which was enacted without public or parliamentary debate, also led to the foundation of the Groupement des scientifiques pour l'information sur l'énergie nucléaire (Association of Scientists for Information on Nuclear Energy), formed after around 4,000 scientists signed a petition of concern over the government's action, known as the Appeal of the 400 after the 400 scientists who initially signed it.
The plan envisaged the construction of around 80 nuclear plants by 1985 and a total of 170 plants by 2000. Work on the first three plants, at Tricastin, Gravelines, and Dampierre started the same year and France installed 56 reactors over the next 15 years.
Following the 2011 Fukushima I nuclear accidents, the head of France's nuclear safety agency has said that France needs to upgrade the protection of vital functions in all its nuclear reactors to avoid a disaster in the event of a natural calamity, adding there was no need to close any plants. "There is a need to add a layer to protect safety mechanisms in reactors that are vital for the protection of the reactor such as cooling functions and electric powering," Jacques Repussard, head of the IRSN, said. Opinion polls show support for atomic energy has dropped since Fukushima. Forty percent of the French "are 'hesitant' about nuclear energy while a third are in favor and 17 percent are against, according to a survey by pollster Ifop published November 13".
In February 2012, President Sarkozy decided to extend the life of existing nuclear reactors beyond 40 years, following the Court of Audit decision that this is the best option as new nuclear capacity or other forms of energy would be more costly and available too late. Within ten years 22 out of the 58 reactors will have been operating for over 40 years. The court expects EDF's projected investment programme in existing plant, including post Fukushima safety improvements, will add between 9.5% and 14.5% to generation costs, taking costs to between 37.9 and 54.2 EUR/MWh. Generation costs from the new Flamanville EPR reactor are estimated to be at least in the 70 to 90 EUR/MWh range, depending on construction outcome. Academics at Paris Dauphine University forecast that domestic electricity prices will rise by about 30% by 2020.
Following François Hollande's victory in the 2012 presidential election, it was thought that there might be a partial nuclear phaseout in France. This followed a national debate in the run-up to the election, with President Nicolas Sarkozy backing nuclear power and François Hollande proposing a cut in nuclear power's electricity contribution by more than a third by 2025. It seemed certain that Hollande would at least order the closure of the Fessenheim Nuclear Power Plant by 2017  where there has been an ongoing closure campaign due to concerns about seismic activity and flooding.
Active efforts by the French government to market the advanced European Pressurized Reactor have been hampered by cost overruns, delays, and competition from other nations, such as South Korea, which offer simpler, cheaper reactors.
In 2015, the National Assembly voted that by 2025 only 50% of France's energy will be produced by nuclear plants. Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot noted in November 2017 that this goal is unrealistic, postponing the reduction to 2030 or 2035.
In 2016, following a discovery at Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant, about 400 large steel forgings manufactured by Le Creusot Forge since 1965 have been found to have carbon-content irregularities that weakened the steel. A widespread programme of reactor checks was started involving a progressive programme of reactor shutdowns, likely to continue over the winter high electricity demand period into 2017. This caused power price increases in Europe as France increased electricity imports, especially from Germany, to augment supply. As of late October 2016, 20 of France's 58 reactors are offline. These steel quality concerns may prevent the regulator giving the life extensions from 40 to 50 years, that had been assumed by energy planners, for many reactors. In December 2016 the Wall Street Journal characterised the problem as a "decades long coverup of manufacturing problems", with Areva executives acknowledging that Le Creusot had been falsifying documents.
In November 2018, President Macron announced the 50% nuclear power reduction target is being delayed to 2035, and would involve closing fourteen 900 MWe reactors. The two oldest reactors, units 1 and 2 at Fessenheim, will close in 2020. A decision on any new nuclear build will be taken in 2021. EDF is planning an investment programme, called Grand Carénage, to extend reactor lifespans to 50 years, to be largely completed by 2025.
Management and economics
Électricité de France (EDF) – the country's main electricity generation and distribution company – manages the country's nuclear power plants. EDF is substantially owned by the French government, with around 85% of EDF shares in government hands . 78.9% of Areva shares are owned by the French public sector company CEA and are therefore in public ownership. EDF remains heavily in debt. Its profitability suffered during the recession which began in 2008. It made €3.9 billion in 2009, which fell to €1.02 billion in 2010, with provisions set aside amounting to €2.9 billion. The Nuclear industry has been accused of significant cost overruns and failing to cover the total costs of operation, including waste management and decommissioning.[not in citation given]
In 2001, nuclear construction and services company Areva was created by the merger of CEA Industrie, Framatome and Cogema (now Areva NC). Its main shareholder is the French owned company CEA, but the German federal government also holds, through Siemens, 34% of the shares of Areva's subsidiary, Areva NP, in charge of building the EPR (third-generation nuclear reactor).
As of 2015, France's electricity price, excluding taxation, to household customers is the 12th cheapest amongst the 28 member European Union and the second-cheapest to industrial consumers.
EdF said its third-generation nuclear reactor EPR project at its Flamanville, northern France, plant will be delayed until 2016, due to "both structural and economic reasons," which will bring the project's total cost to EUR8.5 billion. Similarly, the cost of the Olkiluoto Nuclear Power Plant (EPR) to be built in Finland has escalated. Areva and the utility involved "are in bitter dispute over who will bear the cost overruns and there is a real risk now that the utility will default. EDF has suggested that if the political environment causes the EPR costs to overrun, the design would be replaced with a cheaper and simpler Franco-Japanese design, the Atmea for which the design will be completed by 2013, or the already operating Franco-Chinese design, the CPR-1000. In July 2018, EDF further delayed fuel loading to Q4 2019 and increased the project's cost estimate by a further €400 million ($467.1 million USD). Startup is now scheduled to occur no earlier than Q2 2020 and EDF now estimates project costs at €10.9 billion ($12.75 billion USD), three times the original cost estimates. Hot testing is currently planned to occur by the end of 2018
In 2016, the European Commission assessed that France's nuclear decommissioning liabilities were seriously underfunded, with only 23 billion euros of earmarked assets to cover 74.1 billion euros of expected decommissioning costs.
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Drawing such a large percentage of overall electrical production from nuclear power is unique to France. This reliance has resulted in certain necessary deviations from the standard design and function of other nuclear power programs. For instance, in order to meet changing demand throughout the day, some plants must work as peaking power plant, whereas most nuclear plants in the world operate as base-load plants, and allow other fossil or hydro units to adjust to demand. Nuclear power in France has a total capacity factor of around 77%, which is low due to load following. However availability is around 84%, indicating excellent overall performance of the plants.
The first eight power reactors in the nation were gas cooled reactor types (UNGG reactor), whose development was pioneered by CEA. Coinciding with a uranium enrichment program, EDF developed pressurized water reactor (PWR) technology which eventually became the dominant type. The gas-cooled reactors located at Brennilis, Bugey, Chinon, and Marcoule have all been shut down.
All operating plants today are PWRs. The sodium-cooled fast breeder reactor technology development reactors, Phénix and Superphénix, have been shut down with work ongoing for a more advanced replacement in the form of the ASTRID (reactor).
The PWR plants were all developed by Framatome (now Areva) from the initial Westinghouse design. All currently operating PWR plants are of three design variations, having output powers of 900 MWe, 1300 MWe, and 1450 MWe. The repeated use of these standard variants of a design has afforded France the greatest degree of nuclear plant standardization in the world.
900 MWe class (CP0, CP1 and CP2 designs)
There are a total of 34 of these reactors in operation; most were constructed in the 1970s and the early 1980s. In 2002, they had a uniform review and all were granted a 10-year life extension.
With the CP0 and CP1 designs, two reactors share the same machine and command room. With the CP2 design, each reactor has its own machine and command room. Apart from this difference, CP1 and CP2 use the same technologies, and the two types are frequently referred to as CPY. Compared to CP0 they have an additional cooling circuit between the emergency system that in case of an accident allows to spray water into the containment and the circuit which contains river water, a more flexible control system and some minor difference in the layout of the building.
This three loop design (three steam generators and three primary circulation pumps) was also exported to a number of other countries, including:
- South Africa – two units at the Koeberg nuclear power station
- South Korea – two units at the Ulchin Nuclear Power Plant
- People's Republic of China, where it was later developed into the 1000 MWe CPR-1000 design:
1300 MWe class (P4 and P'4 designs)
There are 20 reactors of this design (four steam generators and four primary circulation pumps) operating in France. The P4 and P'4 type have some minor difference in the layout of the building, especially for the structure which contain the fuel rods and the circuitry.
1450 MWe class (N4 design)
There are only 4 of these reactors, housed at two separate sites: Civaux and Chooz. Construction of these reactors started between 1984 and 1991, but full commercial operation did not begin until between 2000 and 2002 because of thermal fatigue flaws in the heat removal system requiring the redesign and replacement of parts in each N4 power station. In 2003 the stations were all uprated to 1500 MWe.
1650 MWe class (EPR design)
The next generation design for French reactors is the EPR, which will have a broader scope than France alone, with a plant in Finland and two in China undergoing construction, and two more proposed for the United Kingdom. The first French EPR is under construction at the Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant. As a result of delays and cost overruns, completion is now scheduled for 2017. An additional EPR reactor was planned for the Penly Nuclear Power Plant, but this project has now been abandoned.
The reactor design was developed by Areva contributing its N4 reactor technology and the German company Siemens contributing its Konvoi reactor technology. In keeping with the French approach of highly standardized plants and proven technology, it uses more traditional active safety systems and is more similar to current plant designs than international competitors such as the AP1000 or the ESBWR.
In 2013, EDF acknowledged the difficulties it was having building the EPR design. In September 2015 EDF's chief executive, Jean-Bernard Lévy, stated that the design of a "New Model" EPR was being worked on, which will be easier and cheaper to build, which would be ready for orders from about 2020. In 2016 EDF planned to build two New Model EPR reactors in France by 2030 to prepare for renewing its fleet of older reactors. However following financial difficulties at Areva, and its merger with EDF, French Energy Minister Nicolas Hulot said in January 2018 "for now [building a New Model EPR] is neither a priority or a plan. Right now the priority is to develop renewable energy and to reduce the share of nuclear."
The majority of nuclear plants in France are located away from the coasts and obtain their cooling water from rivers. These plants employ cooling towers to reduce their impact on the environment. The temperature of emitted water carrying the waste heat is strictly limited by the French government, and this has proved to be problematic during recent heat waves.
Five plants, equaling 18 reactors are located on the coast:
- Gravelines Nuclear Power Station
- Penly Nuclear Power Plant
- Paluel Nuclear Power Plant
- Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant
- Blayais Nuclear Power Plant
These five get their cooling water directly from the ocean and can thus dump their waste heat directly back into the sea, which is slightly more economical.
France is one of the few countries in the world with an active nuclear reprocessing program, with the COGEMA La Hague site. Enrichment work, some MOX fuel fabrication, and other activities take place at the Tricastin Nuclear Power Centre. Enrichment is completely domestic and is powered by 2/3 of the output of the nuclear plant at Tricastin. Reprocessing of fuel from other countries has been done for the United States and Japan, who have expressed the desire to develop a more closed fuel cycle similar to what France has achieved. MOX fuel fabrication services have also been sold to other countries, notably to the USA for the Megatons to Megawatts Program, using plutonium from dismantled nuclear weapons.
While France does not mine uranium for the front end of the fuel cycle domestically, French companies have various holdings in the uranium market. Uranium for the French program totalled 8000 tonnes annually as of 2014.:79 Areva is involved in uranium mining operations in Canada, Kazakhstan, Namibia, and Niger.:236
France's nuclear reactors comprise 90 per cent of EDFs capacity and so they are used in load-following mode and some reactors close at weekends because there is no market for the electricity. This means that the capacity factor is low by world standards, usually in the high seventies as a percentage, which is not an ideal economic situation for nuclear plants.
During periods of high demand EDF has been routinely "forced into the relatively expensive spot and short-term power markets because it lacks adequate peak load generating capacity". France heavily relies on electric heating, with about one third of existing and three-quarters of new houses using electric space heating due to the low off-peak tariffs offered. Due to this residential heating demand, about 2.3 GW of extra power is needed for every degree Celsius of temperature drop. This means that during cold snaps, French electricity demand increases dramatically, forcing the country to import at full capacity from its neighbours during peak demand. For example, in February 2012, Germany "came to the rescue of France during last week's cold snap by massively exporting electricity to its neighbour".
All but five of EDFs plants are inland and require fresh water for cooling. Eleven of these 15 inland plants have cooling towers, using evaporative cooling, while the others use lake or river water directly. In very hot summers, generation output may be restricted.
In 2008, nuclear power accounted for 16% of final energy consumption in France. As is common in all industrialized nations, fossil fuels still dominate energy consumption, particularly in the transportation and heating sectors. However, nuclear constitutes a higher level of total energy consumption in France than in any other country. In 2001, nuclear power accounted for 37% of the total energy consumption in France. In 2011 France consumed ~ 11 quadrillion BTUs (3224 TWh) of energy according to the Energy Information Administration.
Accidents and incidents
|17 October 1969||Saint-Laurent, France||50 kg of uranium in one of the reactors at the Saint-Laurent Nuclear Power Plant began to melt, an event classified at 'level 4' on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). As of March 2011, this remains the most serious civil nuclear power accident in France.||?|
|25 July 1979||Saclay, France||Radioactive fluids escape into drains designed for ordinary wastes, seeping into the local watershed at the Saclay BL3 Reactor||5|
|13 March 1980||Loir-et-Cher, France||A malfunctioning cooling system fuses fuel elements together at the Saint Laurent A2 reactor, ruining the fuel assembly and forcing an extended shutdown||22|
|14 April 1984||Bugey, France||Electrical cables fail at the command centre of the Bugey Nuclear Power Plant and force a complete shutdown of one reactor||2|
|22 May 1986||Normandy, France||A reprocessing plant at La Hague malfunctions and exposes workers to unsafe levels of radiation and forces five to be hospitalised||5|
|12 April 1987||Tricastin, France||Tricastin fast breeder reactor leaks coolant, sodium and uranium hexachloride, injuring seven workers and contaminating water supplies||50|
|27 December 1999||Blayais, France||An unexpectedly strong storm floods the Blayais Nuclear Power Plant, forcing an emergency shutdown after injection pumps and containment safety systems fail from water damage||55|
|21 January 2002||Manche, France||Control systems and safety valves fail after improper installation of condensers, forcing a two-month shutdown||102|
|16 May 2005||Lorraine, France||Sub-standard electrical cables at the Cattenom-2 nuclear reactor cause a fire in an electricity tunnel, damaging safety systems||12|
|13 July 2008||Tricastin, France||75 kg of natural uranium, in thousands of litres of solution, accidentally spilled on the ground and run off into a nearby river||7|
|12 August 2009||Gravelines, France||Assembly system fails to properly eject spent fuel rods from the Gravelines Nuclear Power Plant, causing the fuel rods to jam and the reactor to shut down||2|
|12 September 2011||Marcoule, France||One person was killed and four injured, one seriously, in a blast at the Marcoule Nuclear Site. The explosion took place in a furnace used to melt metallic waste and did not represent a nuclear accident.||?|
In July 2008, 18,000 litres (4,755 gallons) of uranium solution containing natural uranium were accidentally released from Tricastin Nuclear Power Centre. Due to cleaning and repair work the containment system for a uranium solution holding tank was not functional when the tank filled. The inflow exceeded the tank's capacity and 30 cubic metres of uranium solution leaked, with 18 cubic metres spilled on the ground. Testing found elevated uranium levels in the nearby Gaffière and Lauzon rivers. The liquid that escaped to the ground contained about 75 kg of natural uranium, which is toxic as a heavy metal, but only slightly radioactive. Estimates for the releases were initially higher, up to 360 kg of natural uranium, but revised downward later. French authorities banned the use of water from the Gaffière and Lauzon for drinking and watering of crops for 2 weeks. Swimming, water sports and fishing were also banned. This incident has been classified as Level 1 (anomaly) on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Shortly after the first incident, approximately 100 employees were exposed to minor doses of radiation (1/40 of the annual limit) due to a piping failure.
In October 2017 EDF announced it would repair fire safety system pipes at 20 nuclear reactors to increase seismic safety after discovering thinning metal in some sections of pipes. EDF classified this as a Level 2 (incident) on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
In 2006 the Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN) was created as the independent French nuclear safety regulator, replacing the General Direction for Nuclear Safety and Radioprotection.
In 2012, the ASN released a report announcing a sweeping safety upgrade to all the country's reactors. The ASN's report states plainly that a loss of coolant or electricity could, in the worst cases, see meltdowns at nuclear reactors in hours. It also lists many shortcomings found during 'stress tests', in which some safety aspects of plants were found not to meet existing standards. It will now require all power plants to build a set of safety systems of last resort, contained in bunkers that will be hardened to withstand more extreme earthquakes, floods and other threats than plants themselves are designed to cope with. It will also adopt a proposal by EDF to create an elite force that is specifically trained to tackle nuclear accidents and could be deployed to any site within hours. Both moves are a response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Monique Sené is a nuclear physicist and one of the co-founders of the Groupement des scientifiques pour l'information sur l'énergie nucléaire (GSIEN) (Association of Scientists for Information on Nuclear Energy) and its first president. As of March 2011, she was Honorary Research Director at the National Centre for Scientific Research and president of GSIEN. Although she is not an opponent of nuclear power per se, Sené is a high-profile critic of the French nuclear power programme due to concerns about its safety, the handling of nuclear waste and its imposition without public debate.
Following the 2011 Fukushima I nuclear accidents there has been an increased focus on the risks associated with seismic activity in France, with particular attention focused on the Fessenheim Nuclear Power Plant.
General seismic risk in France is categorised on a five-point scale, with zone 1 being very low risk, through to zone 5 in areas with a 'very strong' risk. In Metropolitan France the areas of highest risk are rated at 4, 'strong', and are located in the Pyrenees, Alps, the south of the Haut-Rhin département, the Territoire de Belfort and a few communes in Doubs. A new zoning map comes into force on 1 May 2011, which significantly increases the rating for many areas. The major nuclear research facilities at Cadarache are located in a zone 4 area near the fault that caused the 1909 Lambesc earthquake, while the Marcoule research centre and the nuclear power plants at Tricastin, Cruas, Saint-Alban, Bugey and Fessenheim (near the fault that caused the 1356 Basel earthquake) are all within zone 3. A further 6 plants lie within zone 2.
The current process for evaluating the seismic hazard for a nuclear plant is set out in Règle Fondamentale de Sûreté (Fundamental Safety Rule) RFS 2001-01, published by the Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety, which uses more detailed seismotectonic zones. RFS 2001-01 replaced RFS I.2.c, published in 1981, however it has been criticised for continuing to require a deterministic assessment (rather than a probabilistic approach) that relies primarily on the strongest 'historically known' earthquake near a site. This leads to a number of problems including the short period (in geological timescales) for which there are records, the difficulty of assessing the characteristics of earthquakes that occurred prior to the use of seismometers, the difficulty of identifying the existence of all earthquakes that pre-date the historic record, and ultimately the reliance on one single earthquake scenario. Other criticisms include the use of intensity in the evaluation method, rather than spectral acceleration, which is commonly used elsewhere.
Following the 2011 Fukushima I nuclear accidents an OpinionWay poll at the end of March found that 57% of the French population were opposed to nuclear energy in France. A TNS-Sofres poll in the days following the accident found 55% in favour of nuclear power. In 2006, BBC / GlobeScan poll found 57% of the French opposed to nuclear energy.
In May 2001, an Ipsos poll found that nearly 70% of the population had a 'good opinion' of nuclear power, however 56% also preferred not to live near a nuclear plant and the same proportion thought that a 'Chernobyl-like accident' could occur in France. The same Ipsos poll revealed that 50% thought that nuclear power was the best way of solving the problem of the greenhouse effect, while 88% thought this was a major reason for continuing to use nuclear power.
Historically the position has generally been favourable, with around two-thirds of the population strongly supporting nuclear power, while the Gaullists, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party were also all in favour.
When the Civaux Nuclear Power Plant was being constructed in 1997, it was claimed to be welcomed by the local community:
In France, unlike in America, nuclear energy is accepted, even popular. Everybody I spoke to in Civaux loves the fact their region was chosen. The nuclear plant has brought jobs and prosperity to the area. Nobody I spoke to, nobody, expressed any fear.
A variety of reasons were cited for the popular support; a sense of national independence and reduced reliance on foreign oil, reduction of greenhouse gases, and a cultural interest in large technological projects (like the TGV, [whose high-speed lines are powered by these plants] and Concorde).
In the 1970s, an anti-nuclear movement in France, consisting of citizens' groups and political action committees, emerged. Between 1975 and 1977, some 175,000 people protested against nuclear power in ten demonstrations.
In January 2004, up to 15,000 anti-nuclear protesters marched in Paris against a new generation of nuclear reactors, the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR). On 17 March 2007, simultaneous protests, organised by Sortir du nucléaire, were staged in 5 French towns to protest against the construction of EPR plants.
After Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, thousands staged anti-nuclear protests around France, demanding reactors be closed. Protesters' demands were focused on getting France to shut its oldest nuclear power station at Fessenheim. Many people also protested at the Cattenom nuclear plant, France's second most powerful.
In November 2011, thousands of anti-nuclear protesters delayed a train carrying radioactive waste from France to Germany. Many clashes and obstructions made the journey the slowest one since the annual shipments of radioactive waste began in 1995. Also in November 2011, a French court fined nuclear power giant Électricité de France €1.5m and jailed two senior employees for spying on Greenpeace, including hacking into Greenpeace's computer systems. Greenpeace was awarded €500,000 in damages.
On the first anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, organisers of French anti-nuclear demonstrations claim 60,000 supporters formed a human chain 230 kilometres long, stretching from Lyon to Avignon. Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann expects anti-nuclear petition drives to start in at least six European Union countries in 2012 with the goal of having the EU abandon nuclear power.
In March 2014, police arrested 57 Greenpeace protesters who used a truck to break through security barriers and enter the Fessenheim nuclear in eastern France. The activists hung antinuclear banners, but France’s nuclear safety authority said that the plant’s security had not been compromised. Although President Hollande promised to close Fessenheim by 2016, and Greenpeace continues to demand immediate closure, Fessenheim continues to operate without problems.
In 2007, Areva NC claimed that, due to their reliance on nuclear power, France's carbon emissions per kWh are less than 1/10 that of Germany and the UK, and 1/13 that of Denmark, which has no nuclear plants. Its emissions of nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide have been reduced by 70% over 20 years, even though the total power output has tripled in that time.
If done without environmental or health over-sight, conventional mining for uranium can produce large amounts of mining tailings and contaminated water but as of 2010, about half of the world's uranium supply is increasingly generated from In situ recovery (ISR) technology, that does not require physical mining in the conventional sense and if responsibly operated is considerably cleaner. Another alternative to ISR is remote controlled underground mining, the French owned Areva Resources Canada owns a large stake in the Canadian McArthur River uranium mine, the world's highest grade and largest uranium mine by output, the underground remote operation of mining vehicles in this mine, is designed to keep personnel exposure to rock particulates and radon gas etc. low. The mine is a frequent winner of the John T. Ryan National Safety Trophy award in Canada, which is bestowed upon the safest mine in the country every year.
According to the French embassy to the US, fission-electricity "helps to reduce French greenhouse gas emissions by avoiding the release of 31 billions tonnes of carbon dioxide (contrary to coal or gas generation) and making France the less carbon emitting country within the OECD". It further notes that, due to recycling of spent nuclear fuel, French fission-electric stations, produce 10 g/year/inhabitant of "nuclear waste", which is primarily fission products and other safety concerning solid decaying radioactive isotopes.
French environmentalist Bruno Comby started the group Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy in 1996, and said in 2005, "If well-managed, nuclear energy is very clean, does not create polluting gases in the atmosphere, produces very little waste and does not contribute to the greenhouse effect".
Unlike its neighboring countries of Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom, France does not rely very much on fossil fuels and biomass for electricity or home heating thanks to an abundance of cheap nuclear power. Taken as a whole, the country therefore has superior air quality and lower pollution related deaths. Air pollution in France largely comes from cars and a minority is carried by the wind from Germany. Each year, the coal fired power stations in Germany are the cause of a calculated 1,860 premature domestic deaths and approximately 2,500 deaths abroad.
Outdoor fossil fuel and biomass pollution, from particulate matter alone, kill more people than is popularly know, approximately 1 million people every year according to the World Health Organization. The level of atmospheric particulate matter, small enough to enter and cause damage to the lungs –is 13 micrograms per cubic metre in France, cleaner than the air in Germany, where the particulate air pollution is higher at 16 micrograms per cubic metre.
A common criticism of French energy policy is that the country may have over-invested in nuclear power plants, requiring electricity export when French electricity demand is low or "dumping" in the French market, encouraging the use of electricity for space heating and water heating. This can be regarded as an economically wasteful practice. However, as the adoption of electric cars, such as the French Renault Fluence Z.E., over internal combustion engine vehicles increases, reducing fossil fuel dependence, France's comparatively cheap peak and off peak electricity prices could act as a strong customer incentive that may spur the speed of the adoption of electric vehicles, essentially turning the current perceived glut of relatively cheap fission-electricity into an asset, as demand for electric vehicle recharging stations becomes more and more commonplace.
Due to France's very low-carbon power electricity grid, the carbon dioxide emissions from charging an electric car from the French electricity grid are 12 g per km traveled. This compares favourably to the direct emissions of one of the most successful hybrid electric vehicles, the Toyota Prius, which produces carbon dioxide emissions at the higher rate of 105 g per km traveled.
The nuclear fusion project International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor is constructing the world's largest and most advanced experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor in the south of France. A collaboration between the European Union (EU), India, Japan, China, Russia, South Korea and the United States, the project aims to make a transition from experimental studies of plasma physics to electricity-producing fusion power plants. In 2005, Greenpeace International issued a press statement criticizing government funding of the ITER, believing the money should have been diverted to renewable energy sources and claiming that fusion energy would result in nuclear waste and nuclear weapons proliferation issues. A French association including about 700 anti-nuclear groups, Sortir du nucléaire (Get Out of Nuclear Energy), claimed that ITER was a hazard because scientists did not yet know how to manipulate the high-energy deuterium and tritium hydrogen isotopes used in the fusion process. According to most anti-nuclear groups, nuclear fusion power "remains a distant dream". The World Nuclear Association says that fusion "presents so far insurmountable scientific and engineering challenges". Construction of the ITER facility began in 2007, but the project has run into many delays and budget overruns. The facility is now not expected to begin operations until the year 2027 – 11 years after initially anticipated.
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