4.5 Billion Years in Provence

Recent radioactive leaks in France provide a cautionary tale for America's "nuclear renaissance."

As gasoline prices rise along with global temperatures, the nuclear energy bandwagon is gaining momentum, and welcoming aboard Americans of all political stripes. In the past month alone, President Bush, preparing for climate change talks at the G8 summit, urged the world to "waken up to the beauty of nuclear power", while Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, in one of his June speeches on energy policy, called for the construction of 45 new U.S. nuclear power plants by 2030, 100 over the longer term. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and Al Gore have both confirmed that they see nuclear power as a necessary part of the nation's future "energy mix"—a view also shared by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a growing number of congressional Democrats, as well as a handful of environmentalists who support the nuclear option as an imperfect but unavoidable alternative to global warming and response to peak oil.

This lesser-evil argument appears to be swaying public opinion: While most polls show Americans about evenly divided on building more nuclear plants, 61 percent say they would support "increased use of nuclear power as a source of energy in order to prevent global warming." There are even signs of the arrival of "nuke chic"—most appealing, perhaps, among those too young to remember when the threat of nuclear annihilation was the planet's inconvenient truth. A 2005 Wired magazine article promoting "clean, green atomic energy" described nuclear power opponents as "the granola crowd," and asked, "Wouldn't it be a blast to barrel down the freeway in a hydrogen Hummer with a clean conscience as your copilot?" And in 2006 Elle magazine included nuclear energy in its list of the top ten "cool, new things."

Big energy companies, of course, are only too happy to ride the nuclear juggernaut, especially when it is fueled by substantial government subsidies. In a country that hasn't broken ground on a new nuclear plant since the 1979 near-meltdown at Three Mile Island, on June 30 the US government's Energy Information Administration listed 19 license applications to build commercial nuclear reactors under review or anticipated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The number is expected to exceed 30 by the end of next year. The NRC has hired 400 new staff to deal with the flood of applications, and "streamlined" the process for siting, licensing, and constructing new nuclear plants. And as the United States once again goes nuclear, it looks for inspiration to the longstanding poster child for atomic energy: France.

Suddenly, the French are very à la mode among nuclear-friendly politicians. Just five years ago, John McCain was berating France for its opposition to the Iraq War. (In February 2003, he told CBS News that the French "remind me of an aging movie actress in the 1940s who's still trying to dine out on her looks but doesn't have the face for it…. You cannot be a great nation unless you have a great purpose.") But his February 2008 visit to France was described by Time as "McCain's Paris Romance." It isn't just the rise of Sarkozy l'Américain that's wringing praise from former munchers of freedom fries. It’s the nukes. "The French are able to generate 80 percent of their electricity with nuclear power," McCain said after the trip. "There's no reason why America shouldn't." South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, who accompanied McCain to France, declared: "Surely we can be as bold as the French. They know what they're doing. They have a very mature nuclear program." Even George W. Bush has pointed to France as a model for our energy future.

But events this month show that life as a nuclear-powered nation is far from la vie en rose. In mid July, the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) announced a leak from a cracked pipe at a nuclear fuel plant in the southeastern Drôme region. It said the leak was small and had not contaminated groundwater. Such was not the case, however, on July 7, when about 75 kilograms (165 pounds) of untreated liquid uranium were spilled at the Tricastin nuclear plant in the Vaucluse, north of Avignon. As the French began to repair to the countryside for their storied six-week summer vacations, those in this corner of Provence were being told not to drink the water—or swim or fish in it. One swimmer at a local lake told the Guardian that people had been ordered out of the water "as if there had been sharks in it."

The incident was given a low rating in terms of risk, but the French nuclear watchdog group CRIIRAD (Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity) reported that the amount of radioactivity released into the environment was 100 times higher than the site's limit for an entire year. The Tricastin facility was temporarily shut down, the water ban remains in effect, and the French government has begun testing the water around all 59 of its nuclear plants.

Such dramatic events were bound to make headlines, and even had some media predicting a chill in France’s long love affair with l’énergie nucléaire, which it embraced during the energy crisis of the 1970s and never let go of. But in fact, the idea of France as a model of safe, affordable nuclear energy is largely a myth, and the current situation hardly an aberration. Incidences of radioactive contamination are common in France, which has had no more success than any other country in solving the intractable problem of radioactive waste. At the Tricastin site, for example, about 770 tons of nuclear waste have been buried for the past 30 years, and four smaller incidents took place in 2007 alone, according to CRIIRAD.

Nuclear contamination even threatens the twin sacraments of French life, wine and cheese. In May 2006, Greenpeace reported that low-level radioactive waste from a nuclear dumpsite had been found in the groundwater near the Champagne vineyards of eastern France. A report released earlier the same month on contamination from an older nuclear waste facility in La Hague, Normandy showed radioactivity more than seven times the European safety limit in local underground aquifers, which are used by farmers for their dairy cattle in a region renowned for its Brie and Camembert.

The La Hague facility is particularly important to current debates over the future of nuclear power. It is the world's largest nuclear fuel "reprocessing" plant, where spent nuclear fuel is broken down and parts of it recovered for use in new fuel. Reprocessing is widely touted as a solution to the problem of managing the high-level radioactive waste from spent fuel rods, which remains dangerous for about 240,000 years (Depleted uranium, the byproduct of the enrichment process, is even more robustly radioactive, with a half-life of 4.5 billion years.).

The problem is that reprocessing yields nearly pure plutonium, a substance even more deadly and more volatile—and far more easily utilized by terrorists. In 2003, Greenpeace staged an event for the media in the middle of a town in Burgundy, in which it intercepted trucks carrying what was supposed to be a top-secret shipment of reprocessed plutonium from La Hague. High-level waste is shipped overland to La Hague from all over Europe, and the plant itself, which stores large amounts of highly radioactive nuclear material awaiting reprocessing or transport, would be an especially devastating target for a terrorist attack. (Surface-to-air missiles were briefly stationed around La Hague following 9/11.)

Even under ordinary conditions, La Hague—like its more notorious British counterpart, Sellafield— releases low-level radioactive waste into the air and sea. Several studies have found elevated levels of childhood leukemia around the Normandy site.

Such is the world that American nuclear proponents apparently have in mind: a landscape dotted with nuclear plants, traversed by trucks carrying nuclear fuel and waste. And France is more than ready to export all of this. Areva—the French state-owned nuclear giant responsible for the waste sites in Normandy and Champagne, as well the two plants that had leaks this month—is positioned to take full advantage of the US nuclear revival.

This is much in keeping with the strategy of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has made it clear that he wants France to become an ever-bigger exporter of both nuclear-generated electricity and nuclear technology. Since his election, he has signed cooperation agreements on civilian nuclear energy with Algeria, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. In a speech given just days before the Provence nuclear spill, Sarkozy said: "More than ever, nuclear is an industry for the future and an indispensable energy source....We can be electricity exporters when we have neither oil nor gas. This is an historic chance for development." The head of French Greenpeace's nuclear campaign recently accused Sarkozy of behaving "like a traveling salesman for Areva."

This year alone, Areva has won several major contracts to supply fuel to current US nuclear facilities, and signed on to build a $2 billion uranium enrichment plant in Idaho. (Sen. Larry Craig (R-Id.) subsequently flew over for what he called a "nuclear tour de France.") In addition, Areva, which also has US contracts for nuclear waste disposal and reprocessing, is already participating in George Bush's 2006 Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), a potentially disastrous plan that includes building fuel reprocessing facilities similar to La Hague at sites in the United States. As in France, reprocessing is promoted as a panacea for high-level nuclear waste, which still has no long-term US disposal site. (The other increasingly popular approach is to simply pass the buck to future generation by advocating "interim storage.")

Areva has also formed a partnership with Baltimore-based Constellation Energy to build new nuclear power plants in the United States. Their joint company, UniStar, has already filed a licensing application for a plant at Calvert Cliffs, on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, projected to open in 2015; it is expected to file soon for another at Nine Mile Point in upstate New York. The new US plants are slated to be the country’s first EPRs (Evolutionary Power Reactors), a design developed by Areva and promoted as a new generation of safer, more cost-effective reactors. But the first prototype EPR, being built by Areva in Finland, is two years behind schedule and at least $1 billion over budget, and construction of the second, in Normandy, has been plagued by a series of defects.

Plans for Areva's US plants are moving forward nonetheless, with help from US taxpayers and friends in high places. Dick Cheney's 2001 Energy Task Force gave a big push to nuclear energy, and the new energy legislation that followed in 2005 contained $12 billion in subsidies to the nuclear industry—even more than it gave to the oil and gas or coal companies. A 2007 investigation by MSNBC showed a major jump in Areva’s lobbying expenditures and campaign contributions while the bill was under consideration, as well as close connections with three key players: then-Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham became chairman of Areva’s US subsidiary when he left the Bush Administration in 2006. The task force’s Executive Director, Andrew Lundquist, also served briefly on Areva’s US board. And a former Areva lobbyist, Alex Flint, helped shepherd the energy bill through Congress while serving a stint as staff director on the Senate Energy Committee, which was then chaired by Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). Nuclear power’s biggest booster in Congress, Domenici, is also the only American who has received the French Nuclear Energy Society's highest award.

Areva's new American partner, Constellation Energy, had also been invited to meet with Cheney’s task force, and the two companies announced their joint venture less than six weeks after the passage of the 2005 energy bill with its whopping nuclear subsidies. Announcing that they had begun to procure the materials to construct the first plants, Constellation's Michael Wallace acknowledged: "The Bush Administration and Congress have made this commitment possible by developing, passing and carrying out the Energy Policy Act of 2005."

In other words, despite the host of assurances about safety and cost-effectiveness, the nuclear industry couldn’t survive for a moment in the free-market without handouts from American taxpayers—some of which, in the case of the government-owned Areva, will go into the French treasury. The libertarian Cato Institute, attacking the 2005 energy bill, called nuclear power "purely…a creature of government," saying it was still viewed by private investors as "the pariah of the energy industry."

Such obstacles aren’t likely to derail America’s rush toward nuclear power, nor are the cautionary tales currently playing out in Normandy and Provence. Legislation passed in 2007 included additional subsidies for the industry, increasing government loan guarantees for new nuclear reactor construction and uranium enrichment to more than $20 billion. While an attempt by John McCain to embed still more nuclear subsidies into a climate change bill failed last year, that battle isn’t over yet. And with McCain, a major nuclear cheerleader, and Barack Obama a cautious supporter with large campaign contributions from the industry, the future doesn’t look promising for nuclear energy opponents.

Already, the United States has nearly twice as many nuclear plants than France—104, compared with their 59. But it’s a matter of proportion: The US is more than 15 times the size of France, and has about 5 times its population. The US gets only about 20 percent of our electricity from nuclear energy, and if we wanted to, we could still learn to live without it; we haven’t yet reached the tipping point. The City of Light, by comparison, wouldn't survive a single night without nuclear power.

Ironically, as Americans are drinking the nuclear Kool-Aid, there are signs that the French may be losing their appetite for the fare in the atomic café. Anti-nuclear protests seem to be on the rise in France, against both new nuclear plants and the high-risk transportation of radioactive fuel and waste. A recent European Commission study found that two-thirds of the French want to decrease the share of their energy that comes from nuclear power. And last year, following the so-called Grenelle de l'Environnement—a series of discussions among government, industry, unions, and nonprofit groups that yielded a set of environmental goals—Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France would aim to decrease its reliance on nuclear-generated electricity—to no more than 60 percent.