Normandy Dairy Towns Challenge EDF on Nuclear Reactor

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dec. 10 (Bloomberg) -- The lush green hills overlooking the dairy farms of Le Chefresne in Normandy have become a battleground in France’s efforts to boost power production.

In a corner of France known for Camembert cheese and apples, state-controlled Electricite de France SA plans to build 200 foot-tall steel pylons with high-voltage cables to carry electricity from a nuclear plant. The proposal would add to the 400,000 volts that pylons already carry from two existing reactors.

“We will be living in a microwave oven,” said Jean-Claude Bossard, mayor of Le Chefresne, home to 300 people and about three times as many cows. “We want proof that there won’t be dangerous health effects.”

More than half of 64 affected communities have passed local laws in a bid to ban the structures on health concerns. The French government, which owns about 85 percent of EDF, says the mayors overstepped their authority because the project is in the national interest. An administrative court in the city of Caen tomorrow will hear the state’s case against 16 of them.

The battle to block the new power line is threatening to delay EDF’s 4 billion-euro ($5.1 billion) new-generation Evolutionary Power Reactor, or EPR, being built in Flamanville, 127 kilometers (64 miles) north of Le Chefresne. The reactor is a prototype for EDF, which wants to export similar technology to the U.K., China, U.S. and Italy.

For more than a year, environmental groups have protested against the plan, camping out on top of existing pylons, occupying government offices and holding marches.

‘A Charade’
A green light from the court would strengthen the efforts of EDF’s grid operator, Reseau du Transport d’Electricite, or RTE, to push ahead with an open hearing into the power line, a necessary step before it can be built.

“The public inquiry is a charade,” said Laura Hameaux, of the environmental pressure group Greenpeace France, who is advising the communities. “There is a total absence of democracy regarding the power lines.”

EDF, the world’s biggest operator of nuclear reactors, has hired more engineers to work on the 1,650-megawatt reactor to meet the 2012 deadline. Paris-based EDF, whose 58 plants generate 77 percent of France’s power, wants to operate 10 of the reactors around the world by 2020.

“This Flamanville project contributes to renewing and strengthening our expertise,” Chief Executive Officer Pierre Gadonneix told a gathering of world nuclear industry and political leaders in Paris on Oct. 16. “It gives us a head start in terms of our nuclear development globally.”

Opposition to the pylons shows “it is now easier to get a nuclear reactor built than to put up high-voltage cables,” Gadonneix told lawmakers at the National Assembly today.

The power line in question, the “Cotentin-Maine” link, would be a network of cables and pylons spanning 163 kilometers, according to a document RTE gave local mayors, including Bossard of Le Chefresne.

Towns and residents would get about 20 million euros in compensation, with Le Chefresne to receive about 198,000 euros for hosting 2,687 meters of the line, the document states.

“We are doing the maximum possible to gain acceptance from the local people,” Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, France’s ecology secretary, said in an interview. “The new line can’t be buried underground for technical reasons, so we have also offered compensation for homes people might want to sell that sit directly along the route.”

Health Concern
Her ministry said the line won’t hang over houses or farm buildings and that 270 kilometers of existing and planned lower voltage lines would be buried to push through the project.

Additional compensation for loss of property value is also planned, Jean-Marc Perrin, head of the power line project at RTE, said in a telephone interview.

The government promised an “in-depth analysis” on the health effects of high-voltage power lines as part of the public inquiry and said in a statement on the ministry’s Web site that “appropriate measures will be taken.”

The strongest electric fields are found beneath high-voltage lines, according to the Geneva-based World Health Organization.

“It has become increasingly unlikely that exposure to electromagnetic fields constitutes a serious health hazard, nevertheless some uncertainty remains,” the WHO Web site says.

A 2005 study led by Oxford University’s Childhood Cancer Research Group found higher risk of blood cancer and leukemia among children living within 200 meters of the cables.

David vs. Goliath
RTE says the health concerns are unfounded. “We can’t allow false ideas to stand uncorrected,” Perrin said.

The grid operator has held about 1,300 local meetings since December 2006 to gauge the best route for the project, he said. RTE has just emerged from a decades-long battle to get high- voltage cables to Spain across the Pyrenees, in southern France.

“We are now ready to meet with land owners and make adjustments if necessary,” Perrin said.

The communities and pressure groups say they will continue their fight.

“We are like David fighting Goliath,” said Christophe Gosselin, a coordinator of a group based near Le Chefresne opposing the plan. “People’s health isn’t for sale. We want to create a precedent for all high-voltage lines.”

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