France Offers Lesson on Nuclear 101

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PARIS and WASHINGTON - Nuclear power. It's cheap, reliable, abundant energy. That, plus the growing demand for fossil fuels, has refocused America's attention on nuclear as part of the solution to its energy needs.

Many, however, still question if it can safely work on a large scale. But in France, the answer to that question is clear.

Once considered a dead end as an energy source, nuclear power is now considered by both political parties and the president elect as an important part of America's strategy for energy independence

How times have changed.

The 'New' Nuclear

Twenty years ago, Forbes Magazine called Nuclear Power "the largest managerial disaster in business history…a disaster on a monumental scale." It said nuclear power in the United States was "dead." After astronomical startup cost overruns, and accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, scores of nuclear plants were cancelled.

Today, there are more than 30 new nuclear plants on the drawing board in the United States. And there's even talk of following the example of France, which gets most of its electricity from nuclear.

France decided to go nuclear in 1973, after the first Middle East oil crisis. France saw it's vulnerability on energy and charted a course toward energy security.

Jacques Repussard, Director General of France's Nuclear Safety institute, Institut de Radioprotection et de Suret Nuclaire, told CBN News the rationale behind the decision.

"France has no oil and virtually no gas reserves. And we had to face the issue of where we would procure our energy," he said. "And the government then decided to go big on nuclear, and not only to have reactors but to create a real nuclear industry. So the purpose was national independence."

France has 59 operating nuclear reactors. The United States has 104, almost twice as many. But America has five times the population of France. France gets around 80 percent of its electricity from Nuclear. America gets only about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear.

In fact, France generates so much low-cost power from nuclear, that it exports electricity to its neighbors, earning about $4 million a year.

Still No Easy Sale

Backers of nuclear power in America call it abundant, affordable energy. And with the current concern about so-called "greenhouse gases," some think non- carbon emitting nuclear power is a good idea.

Angie Howard, vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute which represents the industry said, "Nuclear power generates a large amount of base load electricity without emitting any greenhouse gases."

But contrary to what you may have heard, the major environmental groups in Washington still do not like nuclear, mostly because of its high startup cost and safety issues.

"We espouse this idea of the fatal flaws of nuclear power, which include cost, security issues, safety issues. Certainly waste is the Achilles heel of the industry," explained Allison Fisher with Public Citizen's energy program.

Over the past four decades, the nuclear industry has produced about 58,000 metric tons of used nuclear fuel, enough to cover a football field, 21 feet deep. It's waste that will be deadly to humans for an estimated 100,000 years.

Leading by Example

But there doesn't have to be so much of it. France reprocesses its spent nuclear fuel, which reduces the amount of final waste by as much as 90 percent. The final volume of nuclear waste from the recycled fuel needed to power the home of a French family of four for 20 years is only slighter larger than a lipstick case.

America has been reluctant to reprocess nuclear fuel, because it usually means transporting it off site, which is viewed as risky. But the French transport nuclear waste all the time, without any incidents.

There's also concern about the high start up cost of nuclear plants. Wall Street generally views loans for nuke plants as too risky, which then sends the industry to the government, looking for money.

"Wall Street has already said the risk is too high," Fisher said. "The cost is too great. We're not going to invest."

And don't look for Nuclear power to free America from Middle East oil, at least directly. Most of the oil we consume is used for transportation, not for electricity.

Still, nuclear power is cleaner than coal, has demonstrated an excellent safety record and relies on a fuel found right here in North America.

"Uranium is a very abundant fuel source. We have uranium in the United States," Howard said. "We have rich ores in Canada and Australia, in countries that are friendly to the United States."

Americans enjoy making fun of the French. But when it comes to Nuclear Power, a growing number of Americans are beginning to think that the French got it right.

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Dale Hurd

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