What the French Are Doing Differently

Eric Pooley   Former Managing Editor, Fortune magazine


What are the French doing differently in terms of nuclear?

The French did not scrap their nuclear program after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. And France is a much smaller country with much smaller energy demands than [the United States]. …

But we're a much bigger and richer country. People still have this question that persists: "If the French can do it, why can't we?"

It's not that we can't; it's that we didn't. We stopped building nuclear power plants 30 years [ago]. And now our current fleet of plants is getting old. So first we have to replace existing plants, and then we have to build new plants. We need to go on a major building program just to stay where we are. …

All through the 1980s and the 1990s and into 2000, when we were doing nothing, [the French] were continuing their nuclear program. That means that they built some plants during years that weren't as expensive. We've had a huge spike in commodity prices. Steel is more expensive, concrete is more expensive. It's a lot more expensive to build a nuclear power plant in 2009-2010, than it was in 1985 or 1990. So the French have us at an economic disadvantage. To continue with our current level of nuclear electricity production will be expensive. And to increase it up to the French 80 percent level is sort of unthinkably expensive. …

I think the reasonable debate is, "Let's try to build some new plants, and see how it works."

Does it also have to do with the different philosophy about the role in business and government, and how they work together in Europe versus America?

I think it does. The European model has been to choose economic champions within a country and to give them advantages. So the French government has Areva, a leading nuclear power company. And they want Areva to succeed, and they do everything that they can. I think Westinghouse will tell you that the French do more for Areva than the US does for Westinghouse. …

Jeffrey Ball   The Wall Street Journal

BallRead his full interview >

The debate about nuclear is about the other costs of nuclear; that is, proliferation and waste disposal. And you will find people on both sides of the debate. Proponents of nuclear will take you to France, which in the early '70s cast its lot with nuclear and gets now about 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy.

But again -- and this returns to sort of a theme we've been talking about -- that didn't happen simply because someone decided that they like nuclear energy. It happened because the government decided it was going to impose a strict policy, and it followed through with that policy much to the consternation of a lot of consumers and environmentalists over decades. ...

Juliet Eilperin   The Washington Post


You mentioned France in the context of nuclear power. Tell me how Sen. McCain uses that.

He mentions it in almost every speech. … He talks about how they've managed to rely so heavily on nuclear power, and "There's no reason why a great country like America couldn't meet and exceed France's use of nuclear power." He doesn't get into, of course, how the French seem much more comfortable with storing nuclear waste on-site and having nuclear power plants in proximity to residential communities in a way that the United States has always been wary of since the Three Mile Island accident.

What would it take for the U.S. to start approaching the French system of nuclear use?

It would involve a dramatic expansion of our nuclear capabilities. It would certainly require a huge change in how we produce electricity in this country and a dramatic construction project that you would see in communities across the nation in order to supply the kind of electricity that people are talking about.

France also seems to have standardized designs and heavy government involvement.

The French government has been heavily involved in the nuclear industry there. The idea that John McCain would allow the level of government intervention in the energy sector the way that the French has allowed it seems very improbable given his long record in public office. …

Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Sen. John Warner   Co-sponsors, America's Climate Security Act of 2007

Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Sen. John WarnerRead their full interview >

Sen. Warner: Let's start with two fundamentals. Nuclear power produces a minimum, almost a nonexistent amount of pollution. Secondly, nuclear power has become safer. Our United States Navy today is operating on ships and submarines around the globe nuclear power plants. ...

United States has 20 percent nuclear power; France has 80 percent, and it's hopefully contributed to their own air quality significantly and other environmental issues. We had tragic problems here occasioned by safety violations or safety omissions. Those are behind us, I think, at this point in time, and we've got to recognize once again to start America, and we're beginning to see the first signs of America moving toward building new nuclear plants.

One of my power companies in my state just announced [a plan] to build a new nuclear plant in the state of Virginia. It's been well received, so far as I know, throughout our state. So the time has come for America to turn to nuclear power, perhaps not to 80 percent like France, but certainly to increase from 20 percent to a larger percentile, because that will contribute to lowering CO2 considerably. …

posted october 21, 2008

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