French Nuclear Anxieties Soar After Fukushima

France began developing a massive nuclear energy program with minimal public debate after the first oil crisis in 1974 and continued to support nuclear power even after the 1986 Soviet Chernobyl disaster.

French nuclear energy giant Areva SA, majority owned by the French state, operates the country's 59 nuclear reactors, which generate 78.8 percent of France's electricity, the highest percentage in the world.

Until Fukushima the French public felt largely secure in the safety of their country's nuclear facilities.

No more.

In a report certain to spur political and public debate, France's Institut de Radioprotection et de Surete Nucleaire (Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety, or IRSN) has just issued its 2012 Barometer IRSN Perception of Risks and Safety for the French. Which is a detailed report about the French public's attitudes towards the country's nuclear industry, and it makes for devastating reading.

Issued annually since 1988, the IRSN Barometer is designed to measure the changes in public opinion towards the nuclear and radiological risks to which the public are subjected. The 2012 edition of the IRSN Barometer shows the responses of 1,013 French respondents who were interviewed at home between September 21 and October 5, 2011.

The introduction of the IRSN Barometer report states bluntly, "The confidence of the French people that government action will protect them from nuclear risks is severely damaged (because of Fukushima) and the population is increasingly likely to be concerned about the risks associated with nuclear power plants."

The study determined that after the "shock to public opinion" that the Fukushima accident on 11 March 2011 caused, nuclear power risks have climbed to the fourth-highest concern of the French, behind unemployment, the financial crisis, and (social) exclusion. Today, 55 percent of the population consider nuclear power plant risks "high" and only 24 percent "trust the authorities" to protect the public against this danger. More than 80 percent "want the safety assessment of French nuclear facilities to take place in a pluralistic manner," with (the involvement of) international experts.

In perhaps the report's most startling statistic, it determined that 90 percent of the French citizenry interviewed are willing to say that "if, despite all precautions, an accident occurred in a major nuclear facility, it could have very serious consequences."

The report is certain to further batter the value of Areva SA shares. On December 12, 2011 Areva SA asked that trading in its shares be suspended shortly before the opening of the Paris Stock Exchange. Areva SA shares subsequently fell 5 percent before modestly rebounding 1 percent the following day, but 2011 was a grim one for the company overall, as since the beginning of the year Areva SA shares lost 47 percent of their value.

The report is all the more unsettling because IRSN is hardly a leftist tree-hugging entity. IRSN, a public official establishment, was created by the AFSSE Act (Agence francaise de securite sanitaire environnementale, French Agency of Sanitary Environmental Security) in February 2002 and operates under the conjoint authority of France's Defense Environment, Industry and Health and Research Ministers.

Furthermore, IRSN has been involved in monitoring Fukushima since last March, on February 1 issuing its "Impact de l'accident de Fukushima en France: Bilan de la surveillance renforcee de la radioactivite de l'environnement mise en place par l'IRSN" ("Impact of the accident at Fukushima in France: Results of intensive monitoring of radioactivity in the environment established by IRSN") study.

The study reported, "In France, all measurement results obtained in air, rainwater and land products showed that no traces of radionuclides due to the accident at Fukushima were detected before 24 March 2011. Monitoring has highlighted the presence of traces of the main radionuclides released into air in the accident (iodine 131, cesium-134 and 137, and to a lesser extent tellurium 132), which were monitored up to May 2011. For example, the maximum levels of iodine 131 were detected in the order of a few millibecquerels per cubic meter of air, ten becquerels per kilogram of vegetables and a few becquerels per liter in rainwater or in the milk." In a measure of small comfort to the French authorities, "At no time did these concentrations present health or environmental risks... These concentrations were at levels of 500 to 1000 times lower than those measured beginning in May 1986 in France following the Chernobyl accident."

Taken together, the IRSN studies show two things.

First, the fallout from the Fukushima disaster is global in nature. Secondly, that it has had a significant impact on French public opinion and heightened anxieties among the populace about what the government's reaction should be should a similar catastrophe strike a French nuclear installation.

In the aftermath of Fukushima French authorities ordered an immediate review of the nation's nuclear power plants (NPPs.) Perhaps not surprisingly, no major defects were uncovered.

But, as the IRSN study shows, the government is going to have to do far, far more before the French people have anything like the peace of mind they enjoyed prior to 11 March 2011.

At least one French politician is tone deaf to IRSN's findings -- President Nicholas Sarkozy, who is running for a second term. Now rated France's most unpopular president, Sarkozy, elected in 2007, currently has a 68 percent disapproval rating and trails Socialist candidate Francois Hollande in opinion polls for the first round of presidential voting on 22 April.

The year after Sarkozy was elected the global recession began, growth in the French economy has dwindled to zero and the jobless rate is at a 12-year high of 9.3 percent, with youth unemployment standing at 25 percent.

And nuclear energy is becoming an issue in the campaign. On 9 February Sarkzoy visited the Fessenheim NPP and vowed to keep it open. The 34 year-old Fessenheim NPP, which opened in 1978 in northeast France, is the country's oldest. To the cheers of workers Sarkozy said, "We will not close it, this plant. Why would we close it for political reasons?... Where else would we go to get (electricity)? It's madness, madness."

In contrast Hollande has pledged to close down Fessenheim and reduce French nuclear dependence to 50 percent if he's elected president.

So, like it or not, Sarkozy may find two months from now that the election is not only a mandate on his past achievements, but his plans for France's nuclear future as well. As an election primer on feelings among the electorate, he could do worse than to read the two IRSN reports.

Cross posted with

John C.K Daly is the chief analyst at the energy news site Dr. Daly received his Ph.D. in 1986 from the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London.

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