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Nuclear Power Is Set to Come In From the Cold

Amid rising oil prices and environmental concerns, and lobbying by France, more countries are looking to tap atomic energy.

April 09, 2006|Angela Charlton | Associated Press Writer

CHALON-SUR-SAONE, France — At a factory here nestled among Burgundy vineyards, workers shape, bore, polish and test pieces needed to put together a nuclear reactor. At each work station, a map of the country buying the product is pasted next to technical charts.

A reactor core marked for the Salem plant in New Jersey is propped on its side, 16.5 feet wide and resembling a chunk of an enormous railroad tunnel. Nearby, workers prepare to broach holes into a plate for 15,000 cooling tubes for a reactor in Lingao, China.

Twenty years after the Chernobyl nuclear plant released a cloud of radiation over much of Europe and scared consumers and governments away from atomic power, a new crop of leaders, from North America to Europe to Asia, is thinking nuclear.

One country perhaps has done the most to push back the pendulum: France.

As the only European country that continued making nuclear plants after Chernobyl, France has up-to-date expertise that it's keen to export. And the market is growing.

Oil threatens to become unaffordable, gas pipelines run through zones of political uncertainty and coal-fired power plants clog lungs and may overheat the Earth. With energy worries topping the world's agenda, even some environmental activists are reconsidering nuclear power, persuaded by improved safety and the fear that fossil fuels pose even greater dangers to the planet.

China and India are embracing nuclear energy to support breakneck growth. The United States and Russia are reviving long-dormant nuclear plans, overriding concerns about proliferation.

Finland is building the first new reactor in Western Europe since 1991, made by Germany's Siemens and Areva, the world's biggest reactor manufacturer, which operates the factory in Burgundy.

Not everyone is softening on nuclear power. Sweden and Germany are shutting down, not starting up, reactors. But even Britain, Italy and the Netherlands are talking about the option. So far it's only talk -- but groundbreaking talk, given these countries' two-decade taboo on the topic.

"We're positioned rather well for a nuclear renaissance," says Jacques-Emmanuel Saulnier, an Areva vice president.

France's key partner in promoting that renaissance is, unexpectedly, the United States. After two decades on the defensive, the nations' industries are cooperating closely in hopes of a boom in nuclear power.

France is the most nuclear-dependent country in the world, with 59 reactors churning out almost 80% of its electricity. The French state owns the world's biggest electricity utility, Electricite de France, or EDF, and nuclear group Areva, the key to its international nuclear influence.

France is selling more than electricity and reactor parts. It's preaching an updated version of the long-abandoned nuclear idea, a gospel of emission-free energy to wean nations off foreign fuel and harness the atom for a peaceful, electrified future.

About 25 reactors are under construction around the world, adding to the network of 440 commercial nuclear power plants in 31 countries that supply 16% of the world's total electricity. Areva is directly involved in at least five of the new projects.

To Helene Gassin of Greenpeace, who has fought France's nuclear industry for years, the thriving, expanding reactor factory in this modest industrial town is an alarming sight.

"Whenever we see an offer on nuclear energy, anywhere in the world, it comes from France," Gassin said. "Nuclear is the French identity."

Greenpeace insists that despite the industry's claims, safe nuclear power is a myth. Reduced consumption, it says, is the key to solving the world's energy dilemma.

Unlike other European countries, France has never had intense debate over nuclear energy. Gassin and the few nuclear opponents in France's legislature say that's because the industry is run by a monopoly -- EDF -- which is in turn run by the state.

France also has never suffered an accident of the likes of Chernobyl or the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979.

Greenpeace calls that luck. Besides, say critics, nuclear energy generates radioactive waste that is costly to store and prone to theft by terrorists. More than 35 million cubic feet are stored in France alone.

David Bryant, a London-based energy analyst, says the French government has made safety paramount because that is key to keeping this crucial industry afloat. Now, as more and more governments join research into the next generation of reactors, the industry says Generation IV will be the most efficient yet; it will produce less waste and will be simplified to better handle and prevent accidents.

France, without oil, gas or much coal, chose the nuclear path in the 1970s and hasn't turned back. But only in the last few years has its nuclear industry gone so aggressively global, as Areva's bulging bank accounts attest.

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