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France mulls nuclear revamp as Ukraine war prompts an energy mix rethink

French lawmakers on Monday began examining a new bill aimed at speeding up the construction of new nuclear reactors, which President Emmanuel Macron said was crucial to strengthening France’s energy independence. However, critics of the bill say it ignores pressing concerns about the safety of the country’s aging reactors and the industry’s reliance on uranium imports from Russia.

The proposed legislation comes a year after Macron pledged to modernize and expand the country’s nuclear industry in a dramatic policy U-turn, reversing his predecessor’s pledge to cap France’s share of nuclear power at 50 percent – down from the current 70 percent. %, the highest in the world.

Macron has proposed building six new French-designed EPR2 reactors, scheduled to start operating in 2035, with an option to build eight more. The bill aims to simplify the administrative and bureaucratic process required to approve and build new factories. It also removed the 50% cap introduced by former President Francois Hollande only eight years ago.

The bill’s main sponsor, Maud Bregeon, an MP from Macron’s ruling Renaissance party, said the legislation would “make France carbon neutral” by increasing the share of low-carbon energy from nuclear power. . Crucially, it would also bolster the country’s energy independence as European nations scramble to wean themselves off Russian gas and oil amid the war in Ukraine, she added.

As with the controversial pension reform plan that has swept the country in recent months, Macron’s minority government is relying on conservative Republican support to secure passage of the bill, which has already passed the right-wing-dominated Senate.

However, concerns over the safety of France’s aging nuclear power plants could spell trouble for engineering, just as the country’s main nuclear regulator Nuclear Security Administration (ASN), reporting on recent cases of corrosion cracking in nuclear facilities.

Twenty-six of France’s 56 nuclear reactors were shut for repairs or maintenance in November, forcing the country to import electricity from Germany just as it hopes to demonstrate the benefits of its much-touted nuclear industry amid the continent’s energy crunch .

>> How France’s valuable nuclear energy sector is stalling at a time when Europe needs it

News of a recent crack at the Penly nuclear power plant in Normandy has drawn attention to a controversial amendment to merge the ASN with another nuclear watchdog, the IRSN, which critics have labeled as a sign of the government’s flouting of nuclear safety. evidence. Green lawmakers in particular have slammed what they say are attempts to “disband” the IRSN and vowed to fight the draft legislation in the National Assembly.

public opinion swing

Beyond safety concerns, opponents of the government’s nuclear retrofit plan point to the enormous costs of building new reactors while maintaining an aging fleet that requires frequent repairs. They point out that the first generation of the EPR (European Pressurized Reactor), which is being built in Flamanville in northwest France, is now more than a decade behind schedule and has quadrupled its cost from an initial €3.3 billion.

Opinion polls, however, suggest nuclear power’s opponents are fighting a losing battle, with public opinion gradually tilting in favor of the industry as soaring energy prices weigh on French consumers and Japan’s memory of the 2011 Fukushima disaster fades.

“Since Fukushima, the Green Party’s mistake has been to think we have won the battle (against nuclear power),” Yannick Jadot, the party’s 2022 presidential candidate, told a conference in Paris on Friday, calling for an urgent change in strategy.

according to a Odoxa Poll In a survey conducted earlier this year, 60% of French people now have a positive view of nuclear power, up from 34% in 2019. A higher proportion (71%) said they supported proposals to speed up construction of new reactors. Notably, support among the Greens’ own voters has also risen, with one in two polls showing support for nuclear power. opinion poll.

The shift in public opinion marks a stunning reversal of fortune for the industry, coming just five years after Macron initially confirmed his predecessor’s plan to shut down 14 reactors and limit nuclear-powered electricity’s share to 50% by 2035, before abruptly changing course last year.

Since Macron’s change of attitude, France has actively promoted the promotion of nuclear power in the EU’s energy policy, and cooperated with like-minded member states to promote nuclear power as low-carbon energy and the best opportunity for the EU to achieve energy security. This move makes Paris and the traditional It clashed with its EU partner Germany, which argues that nuclear energy should not be placed on the same level as renewable energy.

new dependencies?

Critics of France’s nuclear developments also dispute the government’s assertions of energy sovereignty, arguing that the nuclear industry’s ongoing ties to Russia are just another form of dependence.

in a Report As the debate in the National Assembly began, Greenpeace claimed on Saturday that France’s nuclear industry was “influenced by Russia” because it relies on imports of uranium from former Soviet bloc countries whose exports pass through Russia.

By 2022, “almost half of France’s natural uranium imports will come from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan,” the environmental advocacy group said, with much of it reaching the port of St. Petersburg via Russian nuclear company Rosatom, “which controls all uranium shipments in Russia. nuclear-related material in transit through its territory”.

Rosatom, which oversees Russia’s civilian nuclear program, currently operates the Flashpoint Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in occupied Ukraine. It is also responsible for maintaining Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

green peace defendant France and other EU countries continued to import nuclear fuel from Russia in December, calling their reluctance to sanction Moscow’s nuclear industry “disgraceful”.

“Contrary to what nuclear advocates claim, the French nuclear industry relies heavily on Russian authorities, which may explain why France continues to oppose sanctions against Rosatom at the European level,” the environmental group said on Saturday.

Responding to Greenpeace’s allegations, a French government source told AFP that sanctions targeting Russia’s nuclear sector would have “only a modest impact” on the country’s economy, without elaborating. The source also claimed that penalties resulting from unilaterally stopping existing uranium enrichment contracts would be “more profitable for Russia” than simply letting the contracts expire.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly urged the EU to sanction Russia’s nuclear industry, most recently the head of Rosatom. The European Commission has so far ruled that out because of resistance from several EU countries with domestic nuclear industries, including France.

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