At the foot of the limestone cliffs of Normandy, between the green meadows where cows graze and the rough seas of the English Channel, the atomic future of France is at stake. The Penly nuclear power plant is the place chosen to install two new generation reactors, the first phase of Emmanuel Macron’s plan to combat climate change and ensure energy independence.
It was announced by the President of the Republic in a televised speech on November 9, and thus turned the discussion about an energy source that seemed obsolete after the accident at the Japanese Fukushima plant in 2011. “For the first time in decades “He said,” we are going to relaunch the construction of nuclear reactors in our country and we will continue to develop renewable energies. “
Macron did not offer further details, but the public giant Électricité de France (EDF) works with the hypothesis of six reactors of the EPR2 type that would come into operation between 2035 and 2040 and would cost 46,000 million euros. In October Macron already announced an investment of 1,000 million euros in mini-reactors of the SMR type.
France is the second country in the world with the most power plants, 56, and the second producer of nuclear energy, after the United States. 70% of its electricity comes from this source.
In Penly, where two reactors have been operating since the 1990s, and in the villages of this bucolic corner of France, Macron’s words sounded like glory. The construction of the new reactors is estimated to create 10,000 jobs and ensure the plant’s survival for decades.
“If we consider that the political priority is to fight against global warming, there is no solution without nuclear energy”, considers Sébastien Jumel, 49, deputy of the French Communist Party (PCF) in the National Assembly and former mayor of Dieppe, the fishing port 30,000 inhabitants 15 kilometers from the Penly nuclear power plant and 40 from the Paluel power plant. “I do not agree on many things with the President of the Republic, but I think he has made the right decision.”
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Jumel’s argument, and Macron’s, is that, solely with renewable energies, the elimination of CO2 emissions in 2050 is unattainable. According to the studies on which the Government relies, the goal of zero emissions can be achieved without nuclear power, but it would be more expensive, or it would require a drastic reduction in electricity consumption that Western societies do not seem willing to do. For Jumel, the priority is that it is in the hands of a public company, as is the case with EDF in France.
“Nuclear energy is neither of the left nor of the right: it is pragmatic,” adds the communist deputy in the Penly car park on the top of the cliff.
Atomic faith is widespread in France, unlike in neighboring Germany. After Fukushima, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the nuclear blackout: the last plants should close by the end of 2022. Spain plans to shut down its power plants in 2035.
The atom is a foundation of French sovereignty since the middle of the last century. Despite the danger of catastrophe and the problem of storing toxic waste, it emits almost no greenhouse gases and frees the user from dependence on producers such as Russia or Saudi Arabia.
Sovereignty is also geopolitical thanks to nuclear deterrence. After the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, France is the only country in the club with the atomic bomb that, together with the permanent seat in the UN Security Council, elevates it above what would be the objective power of a European average power.
“You have to reason in the spirit of our parents and grandparents to understand it,” says Jean Guisnel, co-author of Le président et la bombe (The president and the bomb, not translated). “Between 1870 and 1940, France was invaded three times by foreign troops. It’s that easy. That is why the position of the French political class, without exception, consists in guaranteeing national sovereignty and the integrity of the territory thanks to the nuclear. And this will not change ”.
Macron made the doctrine explicit in a February 2020 speech: “If by any chance a state leader underestimates France’s visceral attachment to its freedom and thinks of attacking our vital interests, whatever they may be, he must know that our nuclear forces are capable of to inflict absolutely unacceptable damage to their centers of power ”.
Guisnel explains by videoconference that, in France, the connection between civil and military use of nuclear energy is intimate. “It’s the same theme,” he says, “the same people, the same project.”
For a decade everything seemed to go against the pronuclear field. Fukushima and the German resignation. The aging of the power plants built from the 70’s as a result of the so-called Messmer plan, by the name of the Gaullist prime minister who, in the midst of the oil crisis, promoted nuclearization. Delays and exploding costs in the construction of the new EPR reactor at the Flamanville plant, also in Normandy. The closure of Fessenheim, next to the border with Germany. The doubts of successive presidents, including Macron until recently.
And suddenly, the stars align. Climate change does not wait for the development of renewables. To this is added the rise in energy prices in this autumn of 2021 and a pre-electoral environment in France: the presidential elections are next April. The predominant discourse on the left, center and right coincides: with the pandemic and global instability, sovereignty is a priority. Not only the energetic and military. Also the industrial one.
“Without the nuclear industry it is not possible for the country to go up,” says Nicolas Vincent, 42, delegate of the General Labor Confederation (CGT) in Penly, where he works with the team that manages the reactor. . His is not just any job, he says: he makes electricity. “I work for the nation, for the good of all, the common good,” he is proud.
Françoise and Richard Kobylarz, 69 and 70, retired teachers in Dieppe, are not convinced. With the Dieppe Antinuclear Collective, they have been trying for years to persuade their fellow citizens of the danger of neighboring plants (Penly and Paluel), without much success.
“People live in total denial: this is the most nuclearized country in the world by number of inhabitants,” analyzes Richard in his living room. Françoise points out: “It’s a megalomania: France had the Concorde … We love huge things. But it ends badly. It is a miserable flight forward. “
Among the obstacles of Macron plan figure the cost and construction time. Flammanville’s precedent – construction began in 2007, was expected to cost $ 3 billion and has already cost $ 19,000, and is not yet operational – is not encouraging.
Meanwhile, in Penly and in the surrounding towns, villages endowed with modern schools and cultural and sports infrastructures unusual in rural France, prepare for the prodigious new decade that will double the population. “10,000 workers will come. It will be complicated. They will have to be housed. And build car parks ”, Patrice Philippe, mayor of Petit-Caux, the municipality of 9,500 inhabitants that encompasses the towns of the plant, says in his office. “We are working on it.”
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