Thursday, July 2, 2009


By David Frum - Monday, June 29, 2009

I traveled to Normandy this week to see something not to be seen in the United States: a nuclear reactor under construction. I visited the Flamanville reactor as a guest of NEI, the Nuclear Energy Institute. An executive at the Institute had seen me on television lecturing Bill Maher that nuclear energy was an indispensable foundation of any serious plan of action on climate change. The Institute apparently decided I was their kind of pundit and invited me to join a delegation to Flamanville in Normandy on the Channel coast near Cherbourg where EdF, Électricité de France, is building France’s first new reactor since the early 1990s. (Of France’s 58 operational reactors (soon to be 59), 40 were built in the single decade 1980-1990.)

Flamanville may be the biggest construction project I have ever seen. The great concrete cylinder of the containment building has already begun to rise from the slab base. Alongside, the girders outlining the steel structure that will house the turbines are joining together. Underneath are mighty concrete columns that will together form the pump house, drawing cold water to cool the reactor and returning it through a tunnel that will extend far into the sea.

Large as the project is, it surprisingly fits into an unexpectedly human scale. The new reactor will be the third to stand on the Flamanville site, with room for a fourth later. The entire complex is wedged between cliff and water in an indentation of the coast of only 120 hectares, less than 300 acres, about the size of a small commuter airport. For a project so big it is strangely invisible, dominated by the trees and hedgerows of the farms on the higher ground above. This relatively small space produces four percent of France’s electricity, enough to power a good sized city. The fifty-eight reactors in service -- Flamanville 3 will be the fifty-ninth -- altogether produce 80% of France’s electricity.

Nuclear energy in France operates almost entirely without controversy. This absence of controversy is the most exotic and puzzling thing about French nuclear power. Probing our French hosts on the subject, I collected or devised the following theories on why nuclear energy has avoided controversy in France:

1) France is an energy poor country. Lacking oil and gas altogether and possessing only meager supplies of coal. Nuclear was the only practical alternative to importing energy – and the Arab oil boycott of 1973-74 jolted the French into a united national determination to minimize reliance on imports.

2) France’s civil nuclear energy program is widely seen as a grand national achievement that confirms France’s standing as a major power, and the French are united in their determination to uphold that standing.

3) Nuclear power is a project of the French state. To the extent that environmentalists are motivated by mistrust of private enterprise, French nuclear power does not present an attractive target.

4) Through the period 1980 to 1990, the growth years of nuclear power, the United States and Great Britain had right-of-center governments. Germany had a right-of-center government for most of that period. In all these countries, the post-1960s left, ejected from power, hungered for targets to protest. France had left-of-center governments through the 1980s under François Mitterrand. There was nothing “New Labour” about Mitterrand. He nationalized banks and included communists in his first cabinet. And just for that reason his support neutralized opposition to nuclear power on the French left.

5) The French Communist party always supported it, largely on grounds that these things were done in Holy Mother Russia. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the nuclear agitated gathered, Communist support was still essential for any mass political movement of the left.

6) The French nuclear industry is now state-owned but independently managed, with a traded stock and no guarantee of the debts of either EdF (the operator of the plants) or AREVA (the company that mines and reprocesses nuclear fuel). But again in the 1980s, both companies in their previous organizational incarnations were state-run - and provided many attractive sinecures for politicians who had outlasted their usefulness. That did tend to mitigate opposition!

David Frum, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the editor of

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