In the 1960s, as the U.S. “Atoms for Peace” program got into full swing, promoting civilian nuclear electricity propagation, no European country bought into the concept more deeply than France.
Seduced by the concept of electricity “too cheap to measure,” France began developing a massive nuclear energy program with minimal public debate after the first oil crisis in 1974 and continued to support nuclear power even after the 1986 Soviet Chernobyl disaster. The March 2011 debacle at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex heightened the French public’s concerns, but France abandoning nuclear power is an order of magnitude more difficult than neighbouring Germany.
On 30 May 2011, in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster two months earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced an "energy revolution" and that Germany would close all of its 19 nuclear power plants (NPPs) between 2015 and 2022, which produce about 28 percent of the country's electricity. The shortfall was to be made up with an increased emphasis on renewable energy sources.
French nuclear energy giant Areva SA, majority owned by the French state, operates the country’s 59 nuclear reactors, which generate 78.8 percent of France’s electricity, the highest percentage in the world.
Six months ago France’s Institut de Radioprotection et de Surete Nucleaire (Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety) issued its 2012 Barometer IRSN Perception of Risks and Safety for the French.
Issued annually since 1988, the IRSN Barometer is designed to measure the changes in public opinion towards the nuclear and radiological risks to which the public are subjected. The 2012 edition of the IRSN Barometer introduction states bluntly, "The confidence of the French people that government action will protect them from nuclear risks is severely damaged (because of Fukushima) and the population is increasingly likely to be concerned about the risks associated with nuclear power plants."
That confidence is taking a further hit because on 5 September Electricite de France, denied reports of a fire at the Fessenheim nuclear power plant (NPP) in eastern France even as it acknowledged that two workers there suffered slight hand burns in a blast of steam at the country’s oldest nuclear reactor (opened in 1978.)
Seeking to ally public concern EDF downplayed the incident as simply a “release of steam” related to handling of hydrogen peroxide, which occurred in an auxiliary building which had “no environmental impact.”
Not quite what France’s BFM television reported, which stated that six other workers were slightly injured as well and said that local authorities said the incident was "the beginning of a fire."
Nothing to see here anyway.
Fessenheim NPP manager Thierry Rosso told the press that the steam venting had activated fire alarms, but that “there had been no outbreak of fire. There is no impact on the environment. The incident did not occur in the reactor building, but in an auxiliary of wastewater treatment building. Oxygenated water was injected into the plant for cleaning circuits. This is an operation that we conduct regularly.”
Oddly enough, Rosso was unable to explain the reaction caused by the release of the hydrogen peroxide. Rosso’s aide Charles Thierry added, "During the preparation process of the products, a chemical reaction occurred in the container, which led steam and liquid discharges. Obviously, we must understand how hydrogen peroxide, a powerful corrosive and oxidizing agent, reacted like that… but as regards nuclear power, this was a non-event."
Despite Rosso’s and Thierry’s soothing observations, the “incident” at Fessenheim NPP in fact raises troubling issues about aging French NPPs.
But Fessenheim NPP has become a political issue, which the incident will do little to dispel. Six months ago, eleven months after Fukushima, former French President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Fessenheim NPP and dismissed calls to shutter Fessenheim, stating that it would be a huge mistake and a "scandal" to close it and lay off its workers while insisting that there was no doubt about the NPP's safety.
Today’s incident indicates that Le President’s observations may have been overly optimistic.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com