France: Spreading The Nukes

France ranks 10th in the EPI because of its supply of clean energy.

Being poor in oil and coal might once have been considered a disadvantage, but not for France. Forty years ago necessity led Charles de Gaulle to pursue nuclear power aggressively as a chief source of electricity. For years this strategy put France at odds with environmentalists, but climate change and soaring demand for energy have changed all that. Because of its 59 nuclear reactors, which provide fourth fifths of the country's electricity, France now emits only about half the greenhouse gas per unit of GDP of the United States (about the world average), which propels France to near the top of Yale's and Columbia's Environmental Performance Index (EPI). Nuclear power not only helps insulate France from wild fluctuations in energy prices, but it also suggests a way to reduce its dependence on oil for cars, trucks and buses: if and when plug-in hybrid vehicles and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are ready to replace today's cars, French drivers will be able to tap clean energy from their electrical grid.

The most striking thing about France's happy situation is the difference between its experience in nuclear energy and those of other nations—particularly the United States, whose industry once led the world but is now moribund. What distinguishes France's nuclear program is coherent long-range planning. The French government has laid out where it sees the country's nuclear program heading over the next 50 years, with provisions for the secure disposal of nuclear waste, advanced reactor development and possible fuel shortages. It is a kind of 50-year-long superhighway with various on- and off-ramps that give it the flexibility to handle changing technologies. Other nations would do well to emulate this approach.

France's current plan was begun in the 1990s on the assumption that nuclear power will remain the mainstay of France's electrical generating system for the long term. French planners are also positioning its nuclear industry to take advantage of an expansion in the world's generation of nuclear power, which would greatly increase the demand for new reactors and reactor fuels.

The first consideration in any nuclear plan is how to manage the fuel cycle, from uranium ore to enriched fuel to waste for disposal. In this respect, the French plan is efficient and flexible. The highway starts with a fleet of light-water reactors (LWR), the current workhorse of the industry, initially fueled with enriched uranium, a processed form of natural uranium. When this fuel is used up in a reactor, the by-product contains a significant amount of plutonium, which can be used to make bombs, and stays radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, making it difficult to dispose of safely. Rather than bury it, the French plan is to extract plutonium from the fuel and mix it with unenriched uranium to make a new fuel called MOX, or mixed oxide. Because MOX yields about one third the energy of the original enriched uranium, this step effectively increases the mileage France gets from the original enriched uranium fuel. The leftovers from this process must still be isolated for hundreds of thousands of years, but they don't pose the proliferation hazard that plutonium does.

The French have prepared a geological repository for safely disposing of radioactive waste. Unlike the U.S. repository in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, which has been mired in political opposition, the French repository is approved. The site will be used to store fuel temporarily, with the option to retrieve it at a later date.

By about the middle of the century, if current trends are any indication, a worldwide shortage of uranium may arise. To prevent that possibility, France is now doing the R&D on a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors, called breeders, that can produce new fuel for itself or other reactors. Rather than burying its waste permanently and then facing a fuel shortage, France will be in an enviable position of having a virtually unlimited supply of fuel.

Breeders, of course, are not new. They were first developed 20 years ago in the United States, but shelved for fear that the plutonium they create would cause problems in disposal and proliferation. The breeder technology that France expects to have ready for commercialization in 30 years addresses these concerns. The reactors could be used to destroy the long-lived radioactive components of spent reactor fuel, creating a new way of disposing of this hazardous material more effectively and safely than is now possible. Waste treated by an advanced breeder would need to be buried only for a thousand years, greatly simplifying the safeguards needed in a repository.

Americans tend to see the French as an emotional people. However, on technical matters at least they seem to be considerably more rational. Their long-range nuclear-energy plan was developed with the involvement of their electric utility, the company that builds their nuclear reactors and their CEA (the equivalent of the U.S. Department of Energy). The contrast between how France and the United States handled the controversial issue of nuclear waste is stark. To settle the waste issue, France relied on the Parliamentary Office for Scientific and Technological Assessment (POSTA), a joint committee of their two houses of Parliament, whose membership is proportional to the representation of the political parties, a civil-servant staff and a high-level external scientific advisory committee. In 1991, the French Parliament, on the advice of the POSTA, passed a law giving the government 15 years to report back with their proposal for handling nuclear waste. In 2005 POSTA began a series of hearings on the government's proposal (I testified at one), including hearings in the area where their proposed repository would be located. The result was the Act of 2006 blessing the nuclear road map. The French public never protested en masse over nuclear power, perhaps because of the openness of French decision-making. In contrast, the United States has no coherent long-term policy and has not been able to site a repository even after 20 years of trying.

The United States still has the largest number of reactors (104), which supply 20 percent of the nation's electricity. It is still the best in the world at operating nuclear power plants—uptime has risen from 60 percent in the 1980s to more than 90 percent today, adding 50 percent to nuclear-electricity generation capacity without building any new plants. But the United States is no longer the leader in matters of policy, technology or manufacturing. France has assumed that role, and it is positioned well for a future of green energy.