In so many words, it is framed as pitting the Age of Enlightenment against the pre-industrial era: France is now struggling with whether to continue full steam ahead with respect to its nuclear program or to slow down its efforts -- a battle that is heating up as presidential elections there transpire in May.

When much of the world had been hesitant to create or revise their nuclear energy programs in the 1970s, France had committed itself. That’s been a policy that has enjoyed support from most French citizens, who chose to pry themselves loose from energy exporters. Indeed, the country has 58 reactors that supply nearly 80 percent of its electricity.

But some of the French public may now be doubting those same energy policies that had been enacted to fend off the 1970’s Middle Eastern oil embargo. Japan’s Fukushima disaster last March has spilled over and into the French presidential election to occur this May. Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking another term and who supports an unabated nuclear program, is in a heated contest with his Socialist opponent, Francois Hollande, who would scale back the country’s nuclear portfolio to around 50 percent by 2025.

“We should not return to an era of candlelight,” Sarkozy told reporters while touring a uranium enrichment facility in France. “This isn’t the time to go back to the Middle Ages, to medieval fears when people were scared of progress.”

The global reaction to Japan varies. The United States has a measured response while Germany has taken harsh steps. Germany, for example, says it will gradually phase out nuclear energy there that provides 29 percent of its electricity. Italy and Switzerland, meantime, say that they won’t build anymore units.

Polls taken in France last June show 62 percent of the people there want to cut the nuclear program over 30 years. About 15 percent, meantime, want the program immediately ditched while 22 percent are committed to it.

“The French people are aware that nuclear doesn't create a lot of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Dario Alvarez, formerly with Invest in France Agency, in a previous talk with this reporter. “Still, there's strong opposition from environmental groups but they are not the majority,” who is now with Electricite de France. 

Critical Evaluation

After the Japanese accident, France set out to critically evaluate its nuclear energy program. Last week, French regulators said that all of the units there passed muster and that none of them should be closed. They did say, however, the current security  techniques must be enhanced right away.

To that end, its Nuclear Safety Authority says that stronger safety measures are needed to prevent the spread of radiation in the event of an accident. They will also have to outline how emergency back-up generators will deploy -- the mechanism by which to cool down the spent fuel rods that sit in the reactor’s core. Nuclear operators will have until mid-year to spell out their plans.

Critics say that the billions it will cost to make such upgrades is money that could otherwise be spent developing the country’s green energy program. But France, like all other nations, is striving to meet an ever-increasing need for electricity with a plentiful resource and in a way that minimizes greenhouse gases -- the foundations supporting the nuclear movement.

Elsewhere, Great Britain and Russia are going forward with their nuclear programs. But most of the future growth is expected to occur in Asia: China, which has 23 nuclear reactors now under construction, plans to spend $50 billion to build a total of 32 new units by 2020 while India and Pakistan are also moving ahead. At the same time, Middle Eastern countries have their own plans: Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, which has a $30 billion contract with some South Korean vendors to build four 1,400 megawatt nuclear plants.

The General Accountability Office, which supplied those figures, says that nuclear energy globally provides about 14 percent of all electric generation. That is coming from 438 civilian reactors operating in 33 countries. Estimates that such power would double by 2030, however, have been scaled back for reasons tied to Fukushima as well as abundant shale-gas.

“Once a nuclear plant is built, I can guarantee the cost of power, unlike a natural gas plant,” says Jacques Besnainou, chief executive of Areva North America, in a talk with this writer.

More than 30 years after France began its nuclear strategy, it is accepted by most French citizens, if not embraced. The introspection is necessary and understandable. Given a remarkable track record, the country is unlikely to withdraw its strong support for nuclear power.

EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

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