This is a guest post by Andrew McKillop. Andrew has held posts in national, international and European Commission energy, and energy policy divisions and agencies. An extended bio is given at the end of the post.
First the Politics
March 18, newswires starting strangely with Kuwait’s KUNA, reported that protesters from French environmental action groups, headed by Greenpeace and supported by activists of the green EELV political party which is aligned with French president Hollande’s PS parliamentary majority, broke into France’s oldest nuclear power plant (NPP) at Fessenheim located on the Franco-German border in Alsace, and occupied several parts of the operating section and its roof. Their claims were given considerable coverage by French media, if only to keep minds off Putin’s victory in Crimea, fustigated as an “illegal act” by Hollande and his Foreign minister. One immediate result of this is the halt to construction in French shipyards of two Mistral-class helicopter assault ships for the Russian navy, one of the ships named ‘Sebastopol’, in a contract worth about 1.5 billion euros.
The political claims of the Fessenheim NPP occupiers, who were arrested in a mass helicopter-aided operation by French anti-riot troops, as well as State militia gendarmes, and armed civil police, featured their claim that Fessenheim, at 37 years of age is well past its original design lifespan of 30 years. It has experienced a string of nuclear and mechanical accidents, is located on a known geological fault line, and is the focus of repeated German criticism. This has gone into high gear as reported by ‘Suddeutsche Zeitung’, March 10, with the publication by Federal authorities of previously undisclosed earthquake hazards potentially affecting German NPPs, and a risk response plan including accelerated dismantling of German reactors, already scheduled for complete removal from service by January 2022.
For French greens, Fessenheim is above all a “sitting duck target” for terrorists or hostile military strike action by helicopter assault or missile attack, by any enemy country – Russia for example.
This theme, quite surprisingly, was aired and developed on French 24/24 CNN-clone “news and views shows”, BFM TV and iTele, which are basically geared to selling advertising space for producers of anything that can be sold to couched potatoes. Why the couched potato masses should be interested in nuclear power – when they can slaver over Club Med holidays, Nespresso Gold capsules or really neat iPhone apps, while they munch a McDo and choose their next “low carbon” German saloon car – was not explained by the newzak TV channels. Instead, they were shown long interviews with EELV spokespersons including former presidential candidate Eva Joly (a Franco-Norwegian), advancing the thesis of a possible missile or RPG or air-launched drone attack against any French nuclear power plant, including Fessenheim. Pointing out that occupying nuclear power plants is rather easy, they went on to suggest that pushing a button on a missile launcher a few kilometres away, or hundreds of kilometres away will also be “no problem”. The talkshow hosts were aghast!
Your turn, Mister Hollande! The media shifted back to normal government-friendly mode, and aired long black and white newsreel clips from the heroic days of French nuclear power, with the obligatory views of French atom bomb testing in Algeria and the south Pacific. How that protects French NPPs was not explained, but newzak TV obviously thought “the bomb stuff” was great material for reassuring the couched potatoes.
Next the Problems
The official tally of functional and operating major civil power reactors in France is given as 58, at present, but the count is affected several factors and the real total is closer to 62 or 63. These tallies also ignore the minimum of 4 “non-civil or military reactors” operating in France, which are only operating for the simple reason it is too expensive to turn them off. As long as they are called “operating” it is not necessary to dismantle them.
Attempts at the sale of 1960s and 1970s-era semi-military reactor were given press coverage during “les annees Sarko” (2007-2012) of former president Nicolas Sarkozy. This politician is now heavily implicated in a vast network of kickbacks, fake invoices and donations to his UMP party and his failed re-election campaign, from sources including “his friend” Muammar Gaddafi (while still living). In Dec 2007, Sarkozy made an open and public attempt to sell 2 ex-military French nuclear reactors to Gaddafi’s Libya. The possible kickbacks from the aborted deal are now included in French justice investigations into Sarkozy’s UMP financing during that period.
To be sure the problem is not solved by selling outdated and dangerous military reactors to MENA dictators, in return for oil, but at least dismantling such reactor for sale abroad kicks the problem down the road like a can. These old and dangerous reactors are basically “plutonium brewers”, similar to the UK’s 4 Magnox-type reactors now in their eighth year of slow decommissioning, but the continued existence of “plutonium brewers” sets the question of why a country like France would need or want to produce an additional 7 or 8 tons of plutonium each year for its present semi-official stock of 750 nuclear warheads. Unofficial tallies of French plutonium stocks published by anti-nuclear associations like Reseau Sortir du Nucleaire run well above 200 tons, and are enough to build at least 25 000 smaller sized “tactical and compact” nuclear devices. France could take on the world with that – or irradiate its national territory and cause tens of thousands of cancer deaths, per year, with it. For the moment, French deciders prefer the second choice, but public awareness is rising.
One major problem is simple – nuclear weapons cost money whether used or not, and the Fessenheim occupation shows that NPPs are a fabulous alternative – as long as they are located in Enemy Territory! In theory at least, offensive or ‘classic’ nuclear weapons are no longer needed, and this is a game changer, when or if our couched potato political “leaders” care to wake up to it.
Another key French nuclear problem is shown by Figure 1 in the following breezy OIES comment on the nation’s nuclear power programme (www.oxfordenergy.org/2014/01/the-french-disconnection-reducing-the-nuclear-share-in-frances-energy-mix/). The report has tinges of English jealousy due to the UK being too de-industrialized to build anything as complex, mechanical, or Industrial Revolution style as an NPP in England these days, and has to call for high-priced help from France’s EDF-Areva. This OIES report shows how France’s peak load power demand, and baseload demand have grown ever further apart, the power gap growing by 33% in 10 years. This report takes a pro-French reading of what it says national deciders should do about this in France – basically nothing – because any rapid retirement of the existing 58 or 60 NPPs would create a fantastic spending need for replacing them, far above 300 billion euros. The French response is classic: kicking the can down the road by raising NPP “safe operating lifetimes” from 30 to 40 years, and then possibly to 50 years or more.
As the report also says, prolonging their lifespans – which ironically only in the Fessenheim case is accepted by Hollande’s government as not an option and this single NPP will be retired – is also expensive, as well as risky. Reactor fleet retirement and-or operating lifetime extension cost estimates published by the French General Accounting Office (Cour des Comptes) in January 2012 give an outline cost tally – for decommissioning the present fleet in the period starting no later than 2025 – of around 265 billion euros.
Too Expensive to Stop – Too Expensive to Replace
Nuclear France, due to a large number of convergent factors has higher and higher peak power demands at times of winter-time cold and high industrial and commercial power demand, but only slow-growing baseline or baseload power demand easily covered by France’s “legacy nuclear” power plants. The economic rationale, in France for keeping the NPPs is bolstered by this growing peak-base gap, but the solution to covering the growing peaks will not be nuclear.
The OIES report does not explain this peak-trough problem can easily get worse as national baseload demand ceases to grow at all. Current energy and power-saving programs and laws, including obligatory shutting down of shop and office lighting at night, can even result in a decrease of baseload demand. The French nuclear lobby, like its allies in other countries is therefore beating the drum for rapidly developing electric car fleets.
The reasons why baseload demand is likely to decline – not stagnate – also include the impact of decades of underpriced nuclear electricity, subsidized in France as elsewhere by “non-electric subsidies” to the nuclear-industrial complex stretching from nuclear weapons to reactor building and uranium mining, including fuel fabrication and reprocessing, as well as nuclear waste disposal. For as long as these subsidies, estimated by the Cour des Comptes as an accumulated total near 240 billion euros since France’s nuclear system, in 1956 was declared “majority civil”, continued to be paid out by central government, the nuclear party could continue.
Underpriced electricity and therefore fast-growing power demand was an essential prop for the French national “all nuclear” policy rationale or strategy. From 2013 under the Hollande administration, however, electricity prices in France are set by government to grow at 10% a year for at least the next 3 years. The same government caps public sector pay growth to 1% a year.
The impact of this on power demand can only be downward, the only question is how much. Having had a record-mild winter in 2013-1014 “obviously due to global warming”, power demand peaks in winter were low, preventing the logical result of large-area blackouts and brownouts. The problem is therefore kicked down the road – but the green NGOs and political parties have kicked a major dent in the couched potato article of nuclear faith, especially well brainwashed into French minds, that NPPs are clean, cheap and safe and therefore “the only solution”.
We can leave the last word to Ihor Prokopchuk, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UN IAEA who was quoted, 6 March, saying this to the NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative): “Potential consequences of a military invasion would be a threat of radiation contamination on the territory of Ukraine and the territory of neighboring states”. He added: “In addition, a significant amount of spent nuclear fuel, which is stored on the territory of the nuclear power plants, would pose potential very high risks.” The scarcely veiled threat of the all-new Kiev Flash Mob government striking back against Putin’s Russia with a dirty bomb is therefore on the table. Problems, problems!
Andrew McKillop has held posts in national, international and Euro Commission energy, and energy policy divisions and agencies.
These missions have for example included role of National energy coordinator, Govt of Papua NG, Director of Information at the AREC technology transfer subsidiary of OAPEC, Kuwait, Senior energy research associate at the UN ILO and UNDP, Senior advisor to President, Hydro & Power Authority of British Columbia, Canada (BC Hydro), Seminar leader at the Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad, study, Senior energy associate at the Canadian Science Council, and elsewhere.
Andrew McKillop is a regular contributor to many specialist oil and energy Web sites. He was first energy editor of the journal ‘The Ecologist’ and has published works with other analysts, e.g. ‘Oil Crisis and Economic Adjustment’, Pinter Publishing, with Dr Salah al-Shaikhly, currently the Interim Iraqi government’s Ambassador to London.