Bowing to public fears, France stalls on 3rd generation nuclear reactor

France took a little longer than Germany to process the post-Fukushima shift in public opinion, but today it was announced that plans to build a 3rd generation nuclear power plant at Penly in Seine-Maritime has been “paused”. The EPR – European Pressurized Reactor – developed by France’s Areva between 1990 and 2000 – is currently under construction in Finland, China and France. Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total, said that the project “no longer has a calendar”. This was quickly deflected by the Energy Minister, Eric Besson, who insisted that the project was “not blocked”.

Construction was to have begun on the Penly project in 2012. It would have been the first nuclear reactor not to be 100% controlled by the electricity company EDF. EDF was to have been a 50% stakeholder, with 8.33% for Total and the rest divided between Italy’s Enel and Germany’s Eon.

The two other EPR’s already under construction in Europe – at Flamanville in France and another in Finland – have been dogged by delays and vast budget over-runs.

Laure Noualhat‘s blog at Liberation contains an interesting piece of internal communication at EDF from last month. It’s a message from EDF’s CEO Henri Proglio to his employees, issued several days after Fukushima. Here are some highlights:

“As employees of a group whose nuclear activity is known and recognized, you will inevitably be questioned by your family, friends and neighbours. It is important that you are able to reassure them on the means that EDF has put in place to prevent risks at its plants.”

“Under such circumstances, humility and responsibility are de rigueur. When the time comes to do an audit, we will draw lessons from the Japanese tragedy to make our installations even safer.

“I know that I can count on your support during this delicate period for the nuclear industry.”

This all started back in the 1970s, when France – responding to the 1973 oil crisis – announced a huge nuclear program aimed at generating all of the country’s electricity from nuclear power, without any public or parliamentary consultation.

So, contrary to what may appear like public support for the nuclear lobby, what the Fukushima experience has revealed in fact is just how fragile public opinion is on this issue.

France and Japan – the cost of arrogance

Le Monde ran an opinion piece by Hervé Kempf on March 30, 2011 which in my view merits a wider audience because of the parallel he draws between Japanese and French nuclear policy.

“Day after day, the Fukushima catastrophe becomes increasingly normal: the unacceptable has become part of daily life. Radioactivity is leaking, and will continue to leak. As the French Authority on Nuclear Safety – masters of the subtle art of understatement – said on March 28 “the prognostic of evaluation of reactors 1 to 3 should remain very uncertain during the coming weeks.” What is certain, is that the nearby waters and soil are being poisoned insidiously. Let’s try to establish a preliminary balance sheet, based on the optimistic assumption that Japan’s engineers and workers will succeed in stopping the emission of gases and cancerous particles.

Japan has lost four, perhaps six nuclear reactors, estimated at a value of 20 to 30 billion euros, not including decommissioning. More than one thousand square kilometers around the reactors are contaminated to different degrees, making normal life impossible. The Fukushima nuclear plant will become a nuclear cemetery, requiring surveillance during hundreds of years to come. The country’s energy policy will be upturned. There will be calls for political accountability.

In nuclear matters, Japan is France’s twin: same policy, same techniques, same opacity, same arrogance of the pro-nuclear lobby, same passivity in the political class. Fukushima will have consequences here.

No-one can accept the hypothesis of seeing Nogent-sur-Seine, just 100 kilometres from Paris, or Saint-Alban, at 50 kilometres from Lyons, going through the same thing as Fukushima. The requirements of nuclear safety will increase considerably, and so will the cost of electricity. Attention will also shift to the question of nuclear waste and the decommissioning of nuclear facilities, and there are no real solutions.

Aside from the debate on an end to nuclear energy,  we will have to question the logic of privatization which has informed nuclear policy for the past decade. Will EDF have to be renationalized? Should GDF/Suez build reactors in France? Is the EPR of Penly useful? Is the liberalization of the electricity market a good thing?

…..What the disaster in Japan teaches us is that opacity, in a technological society, is intrinsically dangerous.”

France sends nuclear experts to Japan; but robots refused

France’s nuclear company Areva has sent two experts to Japan to support TEPCO’s efforts in the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima. The experts, who are going at the request of Tokyo Electric Power Co, are specialized in “dismantling” and “clean-up” of nuclear power plants, according to today’s Le Figaro. However, the standing offer to send robots to operate in areas where humans cannot has so far been refused by the Japanese company, and the robots are still parked at Chateauroux airport in France.
nb Tepco did not apparently refuse the 100 tons of boric acid, 3000 masks, 10,000 radiation suits, 20 000 gloves sent by Areva / EDF on the 17/18th March.

Areva is commissioned by Japanese power companies to process uranium-plutonium mixed-oxide fuel, so-called MOX fuel. MOX fuel used at the No. 3 reactor unit at the Fukushima Daiichi plant was shipped from France in 1999.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is up for re-election in 2012 and faring badly at the polls, announced this week that he would visit Japan on Thursday, making him the first foreign leader to visit the country since the nuclear disaster began. The domestic context for Sarkozy is dire: his prime minister broke ranks with him recently on how to deal with a sudden surge in the far-right at the polls; pollsters forecast that he will not even make it to the second round of next year’s presidential elections in all but one of several scenarios. So he flies off to Japan to declare his solidarity with the Japanese, and to play the role of chief flak for France’s nuclear industry.

France and the nuclear lobby: public opinion will shift soon

The nuclear cloud was scheduled to arrive in France on Wednesday or Thursday, so those of us who aren’t convinced by the Heidi-esque declarations in the mainstream press telling us that there is no public health risk have to dig as best we can to try and figure out what we can/should be doing.

I’m following the evolution of public opinion with great interest and so far we don’t have much hard evidence that there’s an important shift underway. However, anecdotally I can report that the sentiment is not as rock solid as EDF, Areva, the nuclear lobby and the French government would like it to be. Stores of various types of “soft” remedies such as organic miso paste, seawater supplements and clay powder are moving quickly through the organic co-ops and stores in Paris, and Les Echos reported that geiga counters sold out in Paris earlier this week (source Les Echos on Twitter).

Don’t forget that France is a country:

* where over 75% of electricity comes from nuclear energy.
* which is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity (generates more than 3 billion euros/year in revenue)
•    for whom nuclear reactors and fuel products and services provide significant export revenue
* which is building its first Generation III reactor and planning a second.
* where 17% of electricity comes from recycled nuclear fuel.

A poll (March 15-16), commissioned by EDF and conducted by TNS Sofres, showed that only 42 percent of the French favoured an end to nuclear, but that 68% believed that a similar accident to Fukushima could happen in France.
Another poll (March 15-17) by IFOP for the Green Party Europe Ecologie Les Verts showed that 70% favoured an end to France’s nuclear program, with 19% in favour of an immediate halt, and 51% for a gradual phase-out over 25/30 years. Only 30 percent of those surveyed favoured continuing the nuclear program and building new power plants.

That was before the cloud arrived in France, before people started to worry about which vegetables they should stop eating (lettuce and mushrooms, for instance), and before reports suggesting that the nuclear reactor core may have breached at Fukushima.

Politicians have been conservative and relatively mealy-mouthed, no doubt keeping a close watch on the opinion polls as a presidential election is coming in 2012.  François Hollande, a Socialist presidentiable, has not said a word. Former PM Dominique de Villepin has called for a Grenelle on energy, and “possibly” a referendum (how brave!). Martin Aubry, head of the Socialist Party, said France should “move towards an exit from nuclear in the next 20-30 years.”

For objective information, the only source is the CRIRAD.

And everyone should read this post by Dmitry Orlov, and learn the difference between radiation and radioactivity.

Safest cellphones and safest cellphone behaviour – introverts rule!

Samsung Blue Earth - lowest radiation level

For those of you, who, like me, are faced with the prospect of purchasing a cellphone for a teenager this year, managing the potential risks are the best option, and aside from the obvious best practices such as favouring texting over voice calls, using an earpiece, not telephoning in the metro or on trains or other places where reception is weak, the SAR (Specific Absorption Rate) seems like a helpful metric.

It’s a measure of the amount of radio frequency (RF) energy absorbed by the body when using the phone, and there is considerable variability among models.

CNET publishes a chart where the SAR level given is the highest level measured with the phone next to the ear, and these figures refer to voice calls only, and not to data use.

According to the latest figures released in December 2010, the three phones with the lowest radiation levels are:

1.    Samsung Blue Earth (0.196) – boasts solar panel on back of handset, and is manufactured from used plastic bottles.
2.    Samsung Acclaim       (0.29)
3.    LG Quantum                  (0.35)

LG Quantum

Compare this with the Blackberry Curve (1.51).
For the Apple Iphone 3G rates vary among models. The 3GS (16GB) is 0.79, the Iphone 4 (1.17).

Among the top 20 highest radiation phones are:
Sony Ericsson Satio (1.56)

LG Rumor 2 (1.51)
HTC Desire (1.48)

Recommendations from the Environmental Working Group which will cheer introverts worldwide: Listen more and talk less – cellphones emit radiation when we talk or send an SMS but not when we are listening!!)

All those fashionable and distinctive phone protection cases – throw them away! the phones have to work harder to emit beyond the casing.

Collaborative consumption in France

Goat rental at 10 euros/day in the French Alps for natural lawn care from E-loue

One step removed from barter (but getting closer every day), and a hot new trend documented by two new business books in 2010 – “What’s Mine is Yours” and “The Mesh” – the mode for sharing and renting our physical assets is being driven by the economic recession and a wider societal backlash against wasteful and mindless consumption. If you’re ready to jump in, here are some resources for France:

Zilok, the French version. Rent anything from a car to a lawnmower or power drill. A Citroen C1 rents for 40 euros a day.

E-loue Goat rentals for lawn mowing etc.

Ecojouet.fr for toys (4 toys for 6 months at a monthly rate of 15.9 euros)

Supermarmite – Buy and sell home-cooked food in your neighbourhood. They call themselves the first social network for sharing home-cooked meals.

Deways.fr Car sharing platform.

Louerunetudiant Outsource your business needs to a student: market research, telemarketing, design, animation, translation etc.

Sustainable soy: Greenwash scam or timely reminder?

The fuss about sustainable soybeans (civil society attacking the Roundtable on Sustainable Soy as greenwash) actually serves an important purpose: to remind us that 80% of the meat and poultry we eat in France is actually fed with GM animal feed, mostly soy-based.

France prides itself on the quality of its meat and poultry, and there are a plethora of “appellation d’orgine controlé”s to testify to the importance of terroir and the way the animals are raised and fed. That, plus the fact that it’s illegal to grow GM soybeans in France would make it easy to assume that so long as you purchase your meat from a nice, artisanal butcher, and ensure that the provenance of the meat is France, that you would be doing your bit for the family’s health. Wrong. Just look at the price differential between organic and non-organic meat and poultry. A “free-range” chicken from a decent butcher costs around 15 euros.  The organic variety costs at least 20 euros. That is a much bigger price hike compared with any other product – fruit, vegetables, dairy, coffee, flour, chocolate etc. Therein lies the catch. Sustainable soy is an intractable problem, simply because the quantities needed are too immense and the costs of conversion too high. Supermarket chains which, in 2010, rushed to declare their imminent shift to sustainable palm oil in their products by 2012, had nothing to say about  sustainable soybeans. It’s the big taboo subject for any supply chain person who is now stuck with a CSR brief. There’s basically no solution to this problem: most of the world’s meat is raised on GM soybeans.

Greenpeace diagram of animal food chain

Hence the civil society scorn for the Round Table on Responsible Soy, which groups corporate members such as France’s Carrefour, Marks and Spencer, Unilever, Ahold (a Dutch supermarket chain), BP International and Shell International. Other members include companies driving soy expansion and GM crops such as Cargill, Bunge, Monsanto and Syngenta.

Over sixty NGOs signed an open letter to the participants of the Round Table on Responsible Soy calling for it to be abandoned, arguing that the roundtable encourages soy monocultures which have a negative impact on biodiversity in ecocystems such as the Amazon, Cerrado, and Chaco.

Meanwhile, Brazil announced in April 2010 that it was creating its own sustainable soy label, called Soja Plus.