France: Vive Les Nukes

Steve Kroft On How France Is Becoming The Model For Nuclear Energy Generation

CBS All Access
This video is available on CBS All Access

With power demands rising and concerns over global warming increasing, what the world needs now is an efficient means of producing large amounts of carbon free energy. One of the few available options is nuclear, a technology whose time seemed to come and go and may now be coming again.

For the first time in decades, new nuclear plants are being built, and not just in Iran and North Korea. With zero green house gas emissions, the U.S. government, public utilities and even some environmental groups are taking a second look at nuclear power.

And as correspondent Steve Kroft reports, one of the first the places they are looking is to France, where it has been a resounding success and the attitude is "Vive Les Nukes."

When much of the world spurned nuclear power, 30 years ago, the French, being French, decided to go their own way and embrace it. Paris, the "City of Light," is lit by nuclear energy, which powers just about everything else in France: its homes, its factories, even its high speed railroads.

Nearly 80 percent of the country's electricity comes from 58 nuclear power plants, crammed into a country the size of Texas. Pierre Gadonniex, the head "Electricite de France," the country's national utility says it all began with a French obsession for energy independence.

"In France, we have nearly no coal. We have no oil. So clearly, nuclear appeared to be the best way," Gadonniex explains. "And 30 years later, it appears to be a very smart decision."

Because nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gases, France has the cleanest air in the industrialized world, and because the price of oil is now around $60 a barrel, it has the lowest electric bills in Europe. In fact, France has so much cheap electricity, it exports it to its European neighbors. French nuclear plants supply power to parts of Germany, Italy and help light the city of London.

"It is a very competitive way of producing electricity when oil prices are beyond, I would say, around $40 a barrel," Gadonniex tells Kroft.

And the rest of the world has taken notice. Nearly a dozen countries, including the United States, are either building or planning to build new nuclear plants, and some of that business will go to AREVA, the French government monopoly that controls every step of its nuclear industry from uranium mining to plant design construction to radioactive waste disposal.

Deep in the wine country of Burgundy, in a massive factory, AREVA is building the first European reactors since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Bertrande Durrande, the Executive Vice President for Manufacturing, tells Kroft the business is "definitely growing."

Besides the new reactors it is building for France and Finland, Durrande says, AREVA is bidding on a project to build four new nuclear reactors in China.

Asked how many plants he thinks might be built in the next 20 years, Durrande says, "A minimum of 20. Which is quite a change when you compare it to the past."

And some of them will almost certainly be in the United States, which hasn't built a new nuclear plant since the 1970's. With energy prices and global temperatures near their reported highs, and the possibility that greenhouse gases will be regulated, the Bush administration is pushing a nuclear revival.

In many respects, the nuclear industry in the United States has disappeared. Over 100 plants were cancelled in the 1970's.

Kroft talked to Clay Sell, the Deputy Secretary of Energy and the administration's point man on nuclear power. With world energy demand expected to rise 50 percent over the next 25 years, he says it is the only practical option for producing huge amounts of electricity with no carbon emissions.

"No serious person can look at the challenge of greenhouse gases and climate change and not come to the conclusion that nuclear power has to play a significant and growing role in meeting that challenge worldwide," Sell says.

Asked how much interest there is right now in building new plants, Sell says, "There is a tremendous amount of interest. Two years ago there was exactly zero plants on the drawing boards here in the United States. Today, there are about 15 companies talking about building over 30 commercial nuclear power reactors. Now, all of those won't get built. But we think there's a significant chance that many of them will be built."

But so far, no one has signed up to actually build one, an undertaking that requires a huge investment of capital and a certain amount of faith. In the 1980's and 90's political opposition, regulatory delays, cost overruns, and a drop in electricity demand forced utilities to pull the plug on dozens of projects, and the industry has a long memory.

"I recall one story, a man who is a CEO today of one of our leading companies," Sell says, "And he described the pain associated with beginning what he thought would be a billion-dollar plant in the 1970's, and bringing it online as a $9 billion plant 20 years later. And he made the point to me that that is not a lesson that'll quickly be forgotten in the industry."