French power myths

Thursday, May 22, 2008

In his rebuttal to Lawrence Solomon’s May 13 column on France’s nuclear power system, French ambassador Daniel Jouanneau made a number of highly misleading claims (letter, May 16). These assertions are especially relevant in light of France’s recent entry into Ontario’s potential multi-billion market, in which Franco-German Areva NP, the world’s largest nuclear vendor, is competing against Japanese-owned Westinghouse Electric Co. and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.

Working in France on nuclear issues for 25 years, four of them as a direct advisor to the Environment Minister’s Office, I am familiar with the French nuclear establishment. The Ontario government should thoroughly scrutinize both the French nuclear program in general and, in particular, the ongoing difficulties of Areva NP in meeting quality-control standards, deadlines and budget terms at its current building sites in Finland and France.

The ambassador’s general claims conveniently confuse electricity and energy. While nuclear energy provides 78% of France’s electricity, this corresponds to only 18% of the total energy that consumers use. In other words, France’s nuclear program does not come close to “ensuring its energy independence.” Oil meets almost half, and fossil fuels over 70%, of France’s final energy needs, as is the case in many other countries. Moreover, all of France’s uranium is imported.

“Since 1970, 50% of France’s CO2 emissions have been avoided thanks to nuclear energy.” That statement by the French ambassador is flatly wrong. France’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2006 were some 13% lower than in 1970, but even higher than by the middle of the 1980s.

“Efficiently meeting the power needs of its population”? Let’s rather say, the government-owned electricity utility — Electricité de France (EDF) — deploys massive efforts to encourage ever more electricity use, in particular in the form of highly inefficient space heat. Picture this: To generate electricity, you heat water and lose between half (a modern gas plant) and two-thirds (a nuclear plant) of the energy in the transformation process, plus an additional 7% to 10% in the grid before the electricity heats air in the home. A modern natural gas or oil-based central heating system loses less than 10% of the energy in the form of waste heat.

“Environmentally responsible”? The Hague plutonium factories emit thousands of times the amount of radioactivity of a French nuclear power plant and cause a collective dose to the world population comparable with those that resulted from the major accidents in 1957 at Kyshtym in Russia or Windscale in the U.K.

France’s nuclear energy policy is anything but “innovative.” The best example is the nuclear establishment’s total inability to adapt to the failure of the plutonium-fuelled fast-breeder program. Having squandered tens of billions of dollars on the plutonium economy, it now sits on two giant plutonium factories at The Hague, despite having lost nearly all of its foreign commercial reprocessing clients. Yet Areva continues to boast that one gram of plutonium is “equivalent” to one ton of oil. It is amazing that such an apparently valuable resource gets a zero value in the accounts of EDF, owner of a stunning 50-ton plutonium stockpile — at US$100 per barrel of oil, the plutonium should be worth more than US$30-billion! Even more amazing, the Dutch pay EDF to rid them of their plutonium separated at The Hague. Usually, one sells a valuable resource.

“France is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity due to its very low cost of generation”? France in 2007 exported 83 terawatt-hours and imported 27.5 TWh, indeed a large net export. What the ambassador does not say is that France cheaply exports baseload power and imports very expensive, essentially fossil fuel peak-load power to use in madly wasteful heating systems in the winter. Net power imports from nuclear phase-out country Germany alone averaged about 8 TWh over the last few years. The CO2 emissions linked to these imports are, of course, attributed to the exporting country and not to France.

Finally, the ambassador states that “France is about to deploy new-generation reactors.” After 2.5 years of construction, the Franco-German European Pressurized Reactor project in Finland is two years behind schedule and US$2.3-billion, or 50%, over budget. The equivalent EPR project in France started on Dec. 3, 2007. The nuclear safety authorities carried out an inspection the same day and noted the company’s failure to meet basic technical specifications and procedures. Following inspections revealed more significant insufficiencies.

These difficulties stem from knowledge-management problems that can only get worse. Some 40% of EDF’s operators and maintenance staff will retire by 2015. Facing a formidable shortage of skilled workers, France has already started fishing in foreign waters for willing students. As the French Embassy points out on its Web site: “Indeed, the need for students in atomic energy is estimated at 1,200 graduated students a year for the next 10 years, although nowadays the number of graduated students is of 300 per year. … Among the most significant initiatives stands the creation of an international master in 2009, which contents will be taught in English in order to be open to French but also to foreign students.”

France’s nuclear program produces not only a bag of kilowatt-hours but also numerous problems, many of them hidden as negative system effects. Countries wishing to import French nukes should look behind the curtain first.

Posted in |