France: Vive Les Nukes

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

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To try and assuage those concerns the government is offering utilities financial incentives, risk insurance and a streamlined regulatory system, which has borrowed a page from the French by pre-approving four basic reactor designs from which the utilities can choose, knocking years off the process. And some of those new plants could be built on existing sites where reactors are already licensed and operating.

But apart from economics, there is the issue of public acceptance. The Chernobyl disaster, and one barely averted at Three Mile Island nearly 30 years ago when a reactor core suffered a partial meltdown, severely damaged the industry's reputation.

"Forget technology for the moment," Kroft says. "Forget energy. Forget greenhouse gases. A lot of the problems of this industry have been political. I mean, people are afraid of them. Fair statement?"

"It is a fair statement," Sell acknowledges. "There is some level of concern. But what we found out and what we have seen is the more educated the public is, the more they understand the technology, the more comfortable and the more accepting they are."

Americans, he says, tend to forget that there are 103 nuclear plants operating in the United States, that have produced 20 percent of the nation's electricity without major incident in the 28 years since Three Mile Island.

"And in fact, they have an outstanding record. There has never been a radiation-related death in the commercial nuclear sector in the United States, ever," Sell points out.

David Jhirad, the head of science and research for The World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, acknowledges that the industry's safety record has been pretty good.

Why are so many people afraid of it?

"When there's a small probability of a catastrophe people think about the catastrophe and not the small probability," Jhirad says.

"Then why have the French accepted it? And what is there about the two cultures that may influence that?" Kroft asks.

"The French love high technology. Whether it be nuclear power. Or supersonic airplanes. Or high-speed trains. They love that," Jhirad explains. "And they love, they accord huge respect and credibility to scientists and engineers. And scientists and engineers actually run these programs."

One of them is Anne Lauvergeon. She is an engineer, a onetime political aide to former French President Mitterrand and chairman of the nuclear giant AREVA, which dominates an industry that employs 150,000 people, and is a key exporter in the French economy. She may be the most powerful businesswoman in France, where everyone knows her as "Atomic Anne."

Asked what the safety record in France is, Lauvergeon tells Kroft, "The safety record in France is excellent. We have not known very important accidents. We are very, very careful."

"But one accident could change everything, right?" Kroft asks.

"Of course," Lauvergeon agrees. "One accident, one very serious accident could affect the nuclear industry as a whole."

"You must either be very good or very lucky," remarks.

"Maybe mix of both," she says. "You cannot bet on the luck. No luck in nuclear. Only work."

And right now she is working hard to convince the world that nuclear power can help solve some of the world's environmental problems.

"One of the things the French tell us is that they consider nuclear power to be a green energy source. Accurate?" Kroft asks David Jhirad from The World Resources Institute.

"Accurate, except for one thing. Which is perhaps the Achilles' heel of nuclear power. It's certainly accurate that the plants emit no carbon dioxide," Jhirad says. "The one thing that needs to be solved is the issue of long term radioactive waste storage and management."