Sept. 16 (Bloomberg) -- Every year at a weekend-long “heritage” event, France throws open doors to centuries-old castles and monuments. This year, for the first time, the list will include an unusual entry: nuclear plants.
During the “journees du patrimoine” this weekend, France’s 58 nuclear plants will share the glory with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s official residence, the Elysee Palace, and the crypt under the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, offering the public a chance to tour the power-generating sites.
After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan, six months ago, state-controlled Electricite de France SA, the world’s biggest reactor operator, is stepping up a campaign to make the French better appreciate nuclear power. Atomic energy provides about 75 percent of France’s electricity, the highest proportion in the world, and is central to the government’s efforts to keep power prices among the lowest in Europe and carbon emissions below those in other large European Union countries.
“French public opinion after Fukushima has become increasingly anti-nuclear,” Corinne Lepage, an environmental lawyer and member of the European Parliament, said in an interview. “EDF has its work cut out for it.”
An explosion at a nuclear-waste site owned by EDF this week that killed one person and hurt four others hasn’t helped. The incident spurred calls to beef up safety tests begun by France’s nuclear watchdog in the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that caused three reactor meltdowns at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi station.
Just last year, there were 1,107 incidents at French nuclear plants, with 143 requiring public notification, according to the regulator Autorite de Surete Nucleaire.
Although EDF and the regulator said there was no chemical or radioactive leak from the Sept. 12 incident at the plant in the town of Codolet in southern France, the accident showed the potential dangers of nuclear installations, anti-nuclear groups and the opposition Socialist Party said.
“People were worried and that’s understandable,” said Jean-Christophe Niel, ASN’s director. “There’s a high degree of sensitivity about nuclear among the public and the government after Fukushima. I think these worries will last for a long time.”
Sixty-two percent of French people want a “progressive halt” to the country’s nuclear energy program in the next 25 or 30 years, while 15 percent want a rapid withdrawal, according to an Ifop opinion poll published in June. The poll shows dwindling backing for the energy compared with surveys in March, shortly after the Japanese accident, when Ifop found 51 percent said the nuclear energy policy should be phased out in the next 25 years.
Sarkozy’s government has strived to keep public opinion firmly behind nuclear power, with the atomic energy industry led by EDF employing about 200,000 people in France. In an invitation for the visits this weekend, EDF Chief Executive Officer Henri Proglio called the utility’s reactors France’s “industrial heritage.”
French power prices are the second lowest among 27 European Union countries, after Finland, when adjusted for purchasing power, according to figures published in November by Eurostat. French households paid about 36 percent below the average.
Areva SA, based in Paris, is the world’s biggest builder of nuclear reactors and the largest supplier to EDF, owner of all French reactors.
EDF has in the past allowed specially organized visits of the sites scattered around the countryside, including near the famous Chateaux de la Loire, on the banks of the Rhone River and in Champagne. About 100,000 people visit EDF nuclear sites annually, half of them school children. Many of the visitors are only allowed into on-site information centers.
The open-doors event this weekend is more broad-based. The visits will include a tour of machine rooms at the reactors and command room simulators, EDF said. About 9,400 people are expected to take the two-hour tours, visits which are also designed to help the utility recruit some of the more than 10,000 people it wants to hire through 2015, in part to replace an aging atomic workforce.
The average age of French nuclear reactors is 24 years. Nineteen of the reactors are about 30 years old. The oldest in Fessenheim, located 1.5 kilometers -- or less than a mile -- from the German border, began operating in 1978. Protesters in Germany and two Swiss cantons have called on France to shut the plant in the wake of the Fukushima accident.
EDF’s efforts to reassure the French public about an energy source that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has decided to exit come ahead of France’s presidential elections next year.
Socialist Francois Hollande, who polls indicate is a leading contender against Sarkozy, has said France should reduce its dependence on nuclear power. Sarkozy, meanwhile, has thrown his support behind future investment in the industry.
“Nuclear energy must be on the political agenda because it’s at the heart of France’s economic development,” said European Parliament member Lepage, who is pushing for the closure of the Fessenheim site.
--Editors: Vidya Root, Steve Rhinds
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