07/29/2008 - 07:06

In praise and fear of France's energy policy

Kurt Zenz House

Kurt Zenz House

House is the Chief Executive and a co-founder of C12 Energy. For nearly a decade, House has studied the physics, chemistry, and economics of capturing and storing anthropogenic carbon dioxide in...


I'm writing this column from the South of France, where for the past five days I've been a member of a Harvard delegation that toured several nuclear facilities operated by AREVA, the French state-owned nuclear company. AREVA is a product of the French government's decision in the 1970s to chart a coherent and consistent national energy policy centered on nuclear power. Our delegation has had impressive access to AREVA's spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in Le Havre, its mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility near Avignon, and its nuclear reactor assembly plant near Le Creusot.

France's dedication to nuclear power over the last 30 years is particularly impressive when compared to the total failure of the United States to follow any coherent energy policy during that same time period. The U.S. public became painfully aware of their vulnerability to oil supply twice during the 1970s, yet in my opinion, only two meaningful energy policy initiatives resulted from those oil shocks--the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve remains a robust insurance policy against sudden oil supply disruptions, while CAFE has become something of a national embarrassment--the United States currently has the least fuel-efficient automobile fleet in the industrialized world.

France has demonstrated that nations can successfully address their energy vulnerabilities, but its example also demonstrates that no energy option will be the cheapest, cleanest, and safest."

France, on the other hand, is the only non-oil-exporting country that actually implemented a coherent energy policy during the last energy crises, and they've managed to stick with it for the past 30 years. Paris has gained a lot of energy security for its fortitude, but the world may ultimately pay a price for its national effort to go nuclear.

The French nuclear industry dates to 1959 when the nation's first commercial reactor went online. A year later, France joined the United States, Russia, and Britain in the club of nuclear-armed nations with its successful detonation of an atomic bomb in the Algerian desert. The country's early commercial plants helped Paris build its nuclear arsenal, because a byproduct of the uranium-based nuclear fuel cycle, plutonium 239, can be extracted from spent fuel through reprocessing and used to make weapons. Instead of storing all the spent fuel from their reactors, the United States and France reprocessed much of it during the 1960s to make nuclear bombs, and they respectively assembled the second- and third-largest arsenals in the world behind Russia.

But during the 1970s, the two countries faced a dilemma. Once they had built significant nuclear arsenals, reprocessing spent fuel became less important militarily. Yet, both had invested billions of dollars in their reprocessing infrastructure. The United States decided to decommission its reprocessing facilities, believing that the risk of proliferation outweighed any possible commercial benefits, while France took the opposite tack and decided to convert part of its weapons-building infrastructure into a civilian business of reprocessing and fabricating new reactor fuel from the uranium and plutonium present in spent fuel. Reprocessing increases the usable energy of the original uranium fuel by about 15 percent, but the trade-off is that it also makes available quantities of pure plutonium--only 10 kilograms of which is required to make an atomic bomb. Thus, reprocessing increases the risk that dangerous fissile material could end up in the hands of terrorists. (The French claim that a benefit of reprocessing is that it reduces the overall volume of nuclear waste, but even so, the uranium separated from spent fuel needs to be stored, and burning MOX fuel made out of recycled plutonium still produces radioactive waste that must be dealt with.)

During the 1970s oil crises, France assessed its vulnerability to oil imports and its lack of coal reserves and decided that nuclear power was its best option. Nuclear clearly made sense from an energy security perspective, as substantial uranium reserves are present in historically stable countries such as Canada and Australia. In addition, the French were betting that they could develop proprietary expertise and technology that the rest of the world would buy from them in the future.

That bet looks as if it's about to pay significant dividends because nuclear power is back in vogue. Environmental groups--once the scourges of nuclear power--are now embracing it as a key component for decreasing heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions. As oil prices have skyrocketed, followed closely by natural gas and coal prices that are tightly correlated, nuclear power is also becoming more attractive economically. Indeed, when the world gets serious about global warming and puts a tax on carbon emissions from power plants, nuclear power is all-but-certain to be the cheapest option for base-load low-emissions energy.

So today, France looks rather smart. It acted decisively in the 1970s to limit its dependence on fossil fuels, and now it's better positioned than any other non-oil-exporting power to deal with increasing fuel costs and global warming. Indeed, as the world tries to contain carbon dioxide emissions, France is likely to benefit enormously from its nuclear commitment because other countries will purchase French nuclear technology and expertise. The financial markets have taken all of this into account as AREVA's market valuation has appreciated 300 percent in the last four years.

The catch is that France now produces enough plutonium in their civilian nuclear power activities to make about 10 nuclear bombs per week. This plutonium is transported 1,000 kilometers every week in armed convoys across the country from the reprocessing facility to the fuel-fabrication facility. That material is vulnerable to theft and could be used by terrorists to vaporize a small city.

We're at a crucial moment in history. The current energy crisis is giving the United States another reason to make its own coherent energy policy. France has demonstrated that nations can successfully address their energy vulnerabilities, but its example also demonstrates that there are no easy answers. Solar and wind power are expensive and intermittent but very clean. Coal power is dirty but cheap and easy to dispatch. Nuclear power is also distributable on a large scale, relatively cheap, and carbon-free, but radioactive waste storage and proliferation risks are unique challenges that warrant serious consideration. No energy option will be the cheapest and the cleanest and the safest. Crafting an energy policy is about managing these trade-offs as best we can.