PARIS - Across the French countryside, within sight of villages and towns, thick clouds of steam rise from giant cooling towers at 58 nuclear energy plants that provide more than three quarters of the nation's electricity. In this, France far outpaces other countries, with Japan second at about 34 percent of its electricity. Nuclear power supplies about 20 percent of the electricity in the United States, where public anxieties and high costs have prevented construction of new reactors since 1979.
This reliance has made France something of a poster child for nuclear power. Now, around the world, nuclear power is getting a fresh look as an alternative to using oil, natural gas, and coal that produce climate-changing carbon emissions. And the French government sees an opportunity. It is preparing to build a new generation of reactors and to step up sales abroad of its technology. "France has become one of the leading countries capable of exporting technology around the world," says Luis E. Echávarri, the director general of the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It is, he adds, "in a very strong position."
While France's heavy dependence on nuclear power has been popular - seen as a source of jobs and a safeguard against energy shortages - that view is being challenged. Opponents are warning that the new nuclear plants are too costly and will produce more dangerous waste that contains significantly higher levels of radioactive material. It's not clear whether such opposition will hinder the government's plans.
The lack of real debate here until recently, critics say, was less a vote of public support than a failure in the French political system. "Nobody asked the French people what they thought," remarks Jean-Philippe Desbordes, author of Atomic Park, a book critical of the French program. "France is much less democratic than the United States."
That's not entirely true, since polls over the years consistently have shown public support, in no small part owing to the active encouragement of the government. France's ambitious nuclear energy program was first established by Gen. Charles de Gaulle in 1958, but it was not until the 1973 oil shock that nuclear power became a national priority. The first plants built by the nationalized electricity company Electricité de France, known as EDF, were based on American technology under license from Westinghouse. But France has since become a major developer and exporter of nuclear energy technology.
Today, the French nuclear program is making a new growth push. In January, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the construction of a new-generation European pressurized water reactor, or EPR, in Penly in northern France. The project is expected to employ some 2,000 workers during the five-year construction period and cost $2.3 billion.
The new reactor will be more powerful than any currently in commercial use. It will consume 15 percent less uranium while producing 30 percent less nuclear waste. The waste, however, will be considerably more radioactive than that produced by older reactors.
The decision to build the Penly plant was quickly challenged by environmentalists, who say high levels ofradioactivity from the new plant will pose a serious health risk to workers and that nuclear waste will have to be stored above ground for a longer period than has been the case to date. "Despite the French government's global marketing of its flagship European Pressurized Reactor as cheap and safe," the environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement, "nuclear energy is rapidly becoming the most expensive way to produce electricity, and its highly radioactive waste poses an ever- increasing problem."
In announcing the construction of the Penly plant, the second in the series, the French government is hoping that building the reactor will persuade potential foreign clients to import the technology. Although no EPRs are now operating, two are currently under construction, one in Finland at Olkiluoto and the other in Flamanville in France's Normandy region. The Finnish reactor has faced serious construction problems, including flawed pipes and waterlogged concrete, that have delayed its original April 2009 completion date by three years and led to cost overruns of 50 percent.
France is aggressively pursuing a worldwide market. In September, EDF bought British Energy, the leading nuclear energy company in the United Kingdom, for 12.5 billion pounds ($23.2 billion at the time of the announcement). In December, EDF announced it would invest $4.5 billion to increase its share in the American firm Constellation Energy Nuclear Group from 9.5 percent to just under 50 percent. In February, the French government-controlled engineering giant Areva, the world's biggest nuclear power plant construction company, announced it would build at least two, and perhaps six, EPR nuclear reactors in India.
Officials say the new reactor at Penly and the other EPR plants being built take into account the disastrous explosion at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl reactor in 1986 (as well as the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania in 1979) through a safeguarded system that cools the heart of the reactor. The reactors are surrounded by a protective layer of reinforced concrete that can allegedly withstand the impact of a wide-body jetliner. "It took years for people to realize that the lesson from Chernobyl was learned," says Echávarri of the Nuclear Energy Agency. "It has taken time to build that confidence."
The French nuclear program is based on three key ideas: centralized management, close cooperation among the key industrial players and the government, and the recycling of nuclear waste. By applying the same technology to all of its nuclear plants - as opposed to the United States, where some 80 different plant designs currently exist - France has significantly cut both construction costs and the time needed to obtain building permits.
In addition, the similarity of the design can make it easier to react to emergencies. "An incident in any one of the plants automatically leads to verification that the same problem does not exist in all the other plants," says Frank Carré, the deputy director in the nuclear development division of the French Atomic Energy Commission. The drawback, he admits, is that a generic problem with the technology in any of the plants means that repairs must be made in all the plants.
The second major characteristic of the French program - close cooperation among EDF, Areva, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the government - lends itself to coordinating research and development and establishing a nuclear power strategy. Such closely knit cooperation is, of course, much easier in France, which has a long tradition of government involvement in major industrial enterprises, ranging from the supersonic Concorde jetliner to the TGV high-speed train.
The downside, according to critics, is that in the case of the French program, the government simply decided to trivialize the risks by placing the nuclear power plants near where people live, thereby giving a false sense of security as the installations came to be seen as part of the landscape.
But it is in the area of nuclear waste treatment that Paris and Washington disagree most strongly. The French have been recycling nuclear waste for some 25 years, a process the United States strongly opposes because it requires separating uranium from plutonium, which in theory could then be diverted to the production of nuclear weapons. The French argue that recycling waste material is the best way to deal with the waste problem and to ensure the long-term availability of uranium. "In France, we have confidence in the efficiency of the safety measures and in being able to control nuclear proliferation," Carré says.
While the debate goes on, nuclear energy is poised for a global comeback. More than 30 applications for nuclear power plants are pending with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the United States. Italy, Britain, China, India, and even Russia, which is awash in oil and natural gas, are eager to build. So are several Eastern European countries that are vulnerable to cutoffs of Russian natural gas.