Prague, 22 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A quarter-of-a-century ago France possessed only three plants that produced atomic energy for civilian purposes. But the sharp increase in international oil and natural gas prices that followed the 1973 Middle East war forced a thorough rethinking of French energy strategy.
In the mid-1970s, French leaders decided to make a major commitment to nuclear power. Their success in transforming their energy sector to a reliance on nuclear power has been an important factor in restoring economic health to the country by drastically reducing energy costs.
It has also aided the country's political independence by preventing it from depending on other nations for energy.
Today, France has 54 civilian nuclear energy plants, heavily supported by the state. They produce more than three-quarters of France's electricity and more than half of its total energy. France also exports close to $3 billion worth of its annual energy production to countries like Britain, Italy and Switzerland.
How did a country of about 60 million people achieve its status as one of the world's top producers of nuclear energy? According to a high official in France's Atomic Energy Commission (CEA in the French acronym), one major reason is that the country simply had no choice. CEA Director of Strategy and Evaluation Philippe Garderet spoke with RFE/RL in a recent (Feb. 12) telephone interview:
"One should recall that its coal reserves were minimal, almost entirely used up. It had very little natural gas, no oil resources at all. Even compared to other large or medium-sized countries -- like Germany, Britain, Norway, the U.S., China and the like -- I would say that France [in the 1970s] was in a particularly difficult energy situation."
Garderet said the lack of other resources forced a political as well as practical decision from France:
"The French realized that they had no local energy resources, that they totally depended for energy -- and, in a way, politically as well -- on countries that were providers of fossil fuels. So, at that moment, the [national] nuclear program was launched with the express intention of acquiring energy independence."
Senior officials at Electricite de France (EDF) say France is now harvesting the fruit of its past investment in the nuclear industry.
They say that in addition to providing an income of about $3 billion in 1997, nuclear power saved France about $7 billion in foreign currency expenditures in 1997, accounting for about one-third of the country's positive balance of payments.
France has not had a major nuclear accident since it undertook its energy-independence program, and its nuclear policy is approved by virtually all political groups of both the Left and Right. That's one reason why France has mostly been spared the fierce pro- and anti-nuclear energy debates that have periodically racked the U.S. as well as many West European nations.
Two weeks ago, in an illustration of the cross-party political consensus existing in the country, the French National Assembly debated the Left-coalition government's nuclear-energy program, an annual occurrence. The five Green deputies -- out of more than 450 others present -- were alone in criticizing the program. CEA official Garderet explained:
"There have been some movements against [nuclear energy]. I would say, however, that these have been mostly marginal [protests]. Today, I would say, first, that public opinion has been significantly effected not by anything linked to France's nuclear program but by Chornobyl. Paradoxically, negative public opinion on nuclear energy in France [to the extent that it exists] has always been the result of events outside of France. Today, for example, questions raised about nuclear energy in France are driven more by events in Germany than by doubts about our domestic program."
But France's nuclear energy sector isn't free from criticism or special scrutiny. While Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government clearly still believes in the necessity of nuclear power for France, Jospin has qualified his position by saying the nuclear industry must be operated in "a transparent way... subject to independent monitoring and control."
Jospin has announced plans to set up a three-member panel to probe the economics of the entire nuclear cycle, including nuclear reprocessing, compared to other sources of energy.
There were public objections to plans announced late last year for two underground nuclear waste laboratories. The loudest protests were raised by residents of the regions where those facilities would be built -- particularly in the Meuse department in eastern France. But nuclear industry officials say the heavily contested decision is a milestone in the program to find a long-term solution for radioactive waste management. The issue of radioactive waste is seen as crucial to the future of France's nuclear energy industry.
(This is the fourth of six features on the status of the nuclear power industry in several nations, East and West. Additional reporting for this article was done by Ron Synovitz)