Who could have imagined General Charles de Gaulle arguing about the future of the French nuclear industry with Marcel Boiteux (appointed head of French energy giant EDF in September 1967)? It is an anachronistic question, but can nevertheless put into perspective the surreal argument that French President Emmanuel Macron and EDF CEO Jean-Bernard Lévy have just engaged in.
Just before handing over the reins of France’s national electricity company, Mr. Lévy accused the president of having contributed to the decline of the French nuclear industry. Currently, it is going through a difficult time, with nearly half of the reactors shut down due to maintenance work, corrosion and defects. At the heart of the battle is the closure of the Fessenheim plant (eastern France) in 2020, which was decided by former President François Hollande in 2012 and later implemented by Mr. Macron.
This event is symptomatic of the tension that runs through the French nuclear industry and the administration’s inability to objectively discuss the place it should occupy in the country’s energy mix. Faced with inconsistent political power, the industry players are disoriented and unprepared to make the right decisions.
As for the public debate, it is somewhere between water cooler talk and ideological battle, unable to give a diagnosis that would allow the French to form a reasonable opinion on such a crucial matter, at a time when the fight against global warming is coupled with an unprecedented energy crisis. “It is very difficult to have a complete picture of the topic, as each person only uses arguments that go in one direction or the other depending on their point of view and preconceptions,” said Christian de Perthuis, director of the climate economics chair at Université Paris-Dauphine.
No one takes responsibility
The example comes from above, or so they say. What happened at Fessenheim is only a sad reflection of French politicians’ lack of vision. The closure of a power plant is a serious and long-term decision, which must take into account scientific and economic criteria, not on a political agreement that the next election or a minister’s sudden resignation will render null and void a few months later.
Today, no one is taking responsibility and everyone is passing the buck. After back-and-forth decisions on whether to relaunch the industry, the president unilaterally announced the construction of new reactors, without having first discussed what would happen to the existing infrastructure, what technology would be chosen and how such projects would integrate into a European vision of energy production. The president must set the course, but is it his role to determine all at once the number of nuclear reactors needed by the country, without carrying out a broad consultation? This method is not helping to calm down a an already tense discussion.
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