Thinking Tech

France can teach us as we switch nuclear power back on

France can teach us as we switch nuclear power back on

Posting in Energy

With no carbon energy resources to speak of, France has had little choice but to embrace nuclear energy. We're in the same boat now and are following France's lead.

As the dawn of Nuclear Age II beckons with President's Obama's announcement of loan guarantees for  construction of the first new U.S. power reactors in three decades, we should rip a page out of the France's nuclear playbook before we let fears of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island get the best of us.

Nuclear power expansion has been off the radar screen in the U.S. for so long, it's hard for the average American to know what to think. Indeed, the question of radioactive waste disposal and reactor safety are far from resolved, but neither are coal carbon emissions or fly ash storage.

Civaux nuclear power plant. credit: Wikipedia

The French love their 59 nuclear power plants as much as their pastries. And they've run them for decades without a major accident. Yes, there were some small radioactive leaks in 2008 as France sought to export its nuclear power to countries such as Great Britain and Finland. And France like the U.S. has only found temporary solutions to the disposal of nuclear waste.

But most lists of nuclear power plant accidents and there are plenty of them show the number of incidents at France's nuclear power plants are comparatively low.

Frontline producer Jon Palfreman went to Civaux, France where a pair of nuclear reactors have been generating more than 3,000 megawatts since 2002. Here's what the Civaux's residents told Palfreman about their nuclear neighbor.

"Everybody I spoke to in Civaux loves the fact their region was chosen. The nuclear plant has brought jobs and prosperity to the area. Nobody I spoke to, nobody, expressed any fear," he wrote.

He explains the French population's love for nuclear may stem for the high regard its citizens have for scientists and engineers. Here in the U.S., we question engineering primacy which I see as a good thing.  Bridges collapse. Boilers blow up. Planes crash. Technocrats need to scrutinized just like bankers and morticians.

France is considering a "restocking" options for nuclear waste instead of burying it in salt formations. No option is perfect, but restocking centers would permanently store the waste above ground where it could be watched 24/7 and detoxified/reprocessed to the extent possible.

Restocking seems less punishing and dangerous to future generations than burying it deep within the earth where centuries from now, it could cause a cataclysmic problems. We owe it to the unborn to keep a sharp eye on nuclear waste rather than kid ourselves that it's been safety discarded below ground for all time.

My warming but not totally embracing nuclear power is an about face for me. I live less than 10 miles as the crow flies from Seabrook (NH) Station, the site of violent demonstrations in the 70s that forced the Public Service Company of New Hampshire into bankruptcy and scuttled a second reactor. I was against nukes for a long time.

But with improvements in the technology and materials, it's time to try it again and put our faith in the technocrats and regulators to protect us. Gulp. We have our potassium iodide tablets in the medicine cabinet just in case.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure