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4.5 Billion Years in Provence

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

| Tue Jul. 29, 2008 2:00 AM EDT
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.

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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.

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