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French Nuclear Worries

08/18/08 5:55PM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) As Hydro-Quebec decides this week whether or not to shut down a nuclear power plant in Quebec, and as Vermonters consider the future of Vermont Yankee, commentator Mike Martin has been thinking about a series of recent incidents at French nuclear power plants.

(MARTIN) You might be surprised to know that France is the second biggest producer of nuclear energy in the world. Since France doesn't have large oil reserves, it's decreased its dependency on foreign oil for decades now through its nuclear energy program. The French slogan back in the 70's was On n'a pas de pétrole, mais on a des idées. Or, "We don't have oil, but we have ideas." Today, nuclear power plants provide almost 80% of France's electricity, and the French nuclear industry is selling a new generation of reactors to countries around the world, including China, Finland, and Dubai.

While you might think of the French as being too eco-friendly to support nuclear energy, a recent poll found that a majority of them think global warming poses a bigger threat than the dangers of nuclear power plants. In general, the French are proud of their energy autonomy, and their nuclear program allows France to generate its electricity with 90% less in carbon emissions than in Germany.

But after a string of incidents at French nuclear sites this July, there is a growing debate about nuclear energy in France - and it comes at a time when France is enjoying its position as an industry leader in what some are now calling a "nuclear renaissance."

First, 74 kilos of uranium escaped into the environment at the Tricastin site in the Rhone region. The plant managers didn't even notify the authorities until eight hours after the leak occurred, and restrictions on swimming, fishing and drinking local water didn't go into effect until 14 hours later. Naturally, local residents were upset, but even more so after an investigation revealed more radioactivity in the area than the leak could have possibly caused. It turns out there is probably a separate, underground leak nearby, caused by military nuclear waste which was stored there in the 60's and 70's.

Then, another site in Isère accidently released a small amount of uranium when a pipe broke. Two days after that, at a third nuclear plant, 15 workers were accidentally exposed to radiation, but apparently only light amounts. The same week, back at Tricastin, a leaking pipe from a shut-down reactor contaminated 100 workers during a maintenance operation. This alert was followed by another evacuation 6 days later at the same place.

With all of these problems coming so close together, and at different sites, the French are wondering just how safe and clean nuclear power really is. And now that small French towns are refusing to have nuclear waste stored nearby, the French are starting to think about the real cost of storing and securing nuclear waste forever -  and of decommissioning leaky, old nuclear power plants, too.

Here in Vermont, and next door in Quebec, we have to make similar decisions about how much to rely on nuclear energy as we enter the post-petroleum age. But as we consider the actual, generational costs of nuclear energy, we may question, like the French, whether it's as safe, clean, and cheap as we thought.
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