by Luc Oursel, Chairman of AREVA’s Executive Board
Energy policy is a subject that we cannot afford to discuss based on short-term considerations or emotional speculation. The price and availability of electricity have a direct, long-term impact on the population’s purchasing power and businesses’ competitiveness. With this in mind, the important issues regarding nuclear power and its role in our energy mix are critical points to discuss during national elections. To be productive, the energy debate must explore all economic, social and environmental consequences of the various options. The electorate must be able to express an opinion based on objective facts and relevant data.
With seven billion people living on our planet today, power demand is set to double by 2050 as the world’s population continues increasing – unless a significant portion of the population is deprived of this vital element. At the same time, we will have to address the increasing scarcity of fossil resources if we want to continue producing electricity without interruption. And let’s not forget that we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions at the same time in order to fight climate change, a topic which has seemingly disappeared from the environmental protection agenda.
The Fukushima plant accident does not change any of these constraints. This is why Germany remains an isolated example with its decision to abandon nuclear power. Belgium wants to identify a suitable alternative source of energy before making any decision to abandon nuclear power. Switzerland will continue building nuclear plants, but will only construct the latest generation of reactors. The United Kingdom, Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Sweden, South Africa, China, India and Brazil, among others continue their nuclear programs with determination. After the Fukushima accident, the United States decided to add another reactor to the fleet by restarting construction on a project put on hold after the Three Mile Island accident.
The German model is often presented as an example of a program focused on renewable energy, but the reality is different. Berlin’s decision will result in higher power costs, greater energy dependency fueled by an increased reliance on imported gas, particularly from Russia, and a jump in CO2 emissions triggered by the construction of gas-fired and coal-fired plants. All these undesirable effects are already being felt after just a few months.
Denmark is another interesting example. It is the European champion for wind power, which represents 30% of the country’s electricity. But because wind is an intermittent source, Denmark is also one of the largest users of coal in Europe. Result: Danish CO2 emissions are 65% higher than the European average, with an electricity cost 50% more! Conversely, the stability of the French energy policy means that, in comparison, our neighbors pay 40% more for electricity than French households. As the cost of electricity is a key element for competitiveness in today’s global economy – and an asset when it comes to preserving the industrial fabric of a country – French industry enjoys the cheapest electricity in Europe. Significantly reducing the percentage of nuclear power in the energy mix would trigger a significant increase in the cost of electricity, rendering moot all discussions on the country’s industrial redevelopment or the preservation of the population’s purchasing power. This is too much to pay for most French people, particularly since surveys demonstrate that most of the French are not philosophically opposed to nuclear power.
Let’s remember that our country’s energy policy led to the development of an industrial complex contributing 125,000 direct and 410,000 indirect jobs. A major engine for exports, it supports an array of high-tech small businesses creating local jobs. If France were to discontinue its nuclear program, most of these businesses would be destroyed and with them a significant part of the 6 billion euros generated each year in France from the export of equipment and services. What power company would order an EPR™ reactor designed to operate for sixty years if the technology provider is expected to reduce its production? To solve our energy conundrum, we must acknowledge that there is no miracle source of clean electric power – and no evil source either. AREVA’s decision to develop multiple solutions to produce electricity with low CO2 emissions, i.e. nuclear power and renewable energies, demonstrates that these energy sources complement each other.
Of course, it is imperative to maintain the highest level of safety in nuclear power production. The French nuclear safety authority monitors existing reactors and the Flamanville construction project both with rigor and transparency. Our teams are recognized for their professionalism and their obsession with safety. In half a century, three serious nuclear accidents have taken place. Only one – at Three Mile Island – took place while the plant was operating under normal conditions. There was no impact on people or the environment. In Chernobyl, the reactor’s design and unforgivable human errors triggered a disaster. In Fukushima, some have forgotten that the accident is the result of two unprecedented natural disasters, which themselves resulted in the death of tens of thousands of people. The nuclear industry will learn lessons from this accident, as it did after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents.
The EPR™ reactor is a product of this approach and the cooperation between safety authorities, nuclear operators and nuclear builders in France and Germany. It is designed to withstand events like these. All power companies interested in building a nuclear plant are considering the EPR™ reactor as a contender. Discontinuing the Flamanville project would be a gift to AREVA’s and EDF’s competitors, giving them a free pass to capture the leadership in the necessary development of nuclear power. While it is legitimate and necessary to determine the best energy mix for our country, it would be irresponsible to let emotions, dogmatic views and politically expedient maneuvers to dominate a debate that is so essential for the economic, social and financial future of our country.
Originally published in French in “Libération” – November 14, 2011