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Interview with French nuclear physicist: »Opponents of nuclear power cannot make a career in France«

2022-01-21T07:50:09.968Z

He built the first nuclear power plants in France and then became an anti-nuclear activist. Here the French physicist Bernhard Laponche explains why his country continues to rely on nuclear power.



Enlarge image

Nuclear power plant in the Rhone Valley in southern France: It has been running since 1984

Photo: Jean Marie Hosatte/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

SPIEGEL:

At the instigation of France, the European Commission wants to classify nuclear power as a sustainable form of energy soon.

Investing in nuclear power plants would then be a green investment.

How do you find that?

Laponche:

At first glance, it looks as if nuclear energy is a climate protector because it releases few greenhouse gases.

This is a dangerous illusion.

It is correct that nuclear fission itself does not release any greenhouse gases.

But there are many sources of CO₂ throughout the production chain: from uranium mining, transport to Europe and the construction and operation of nuclear power plants.

Emissions also occur during normal operation of the reactors - quite apart from the reprocessing plants for spent fuel elements.

SPIEGEL:

But in contrast to burning coal, the climate impact is rather small?

Laponche:

That is correct.

Nuclear power produces few greenhouse gas emissions compared to a coal-fired power plant.

But I gain far more by switching from a coal-fired power plant to a modern combined cycle power plant than by switching to a nuclear power plant.

In addition, it is short-sighted to only look at the carbon footprint.

Nuclear power is and will remain a risky technology.

Ever since civilian nuclear power began to be used in the 1970s, French nuclear regulatory authorities have not ruled out the possibility of a nuclear accident in France or Europe.

So there is no guarantee of security.

SPIEGEL:

The oldest nuclear reactors in France date from 1980 and should continue to operate.

Is this a problem?

Laponche:

The French and German power plants were originally designed to last 30 years. They were built at a similar time and would need to be shut down immediately. The older the reactors become, the more the risk increases. A super meltdown is not only a catastrophe for people and the environment, but also extremely expensive. The accidents in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 showed this. The cost of the Japanese reactor catastrophe ten years ago is estimated at 450 billion euros. The risk for the population and the entire economy is therefore huge. Even if there is no accident, the radioactive releases from the storage of the waste are a permanent problem and the construction of repositories devours billions of taxpayers' money.

SPIEGEL:

So far, thanks to nuclear power, France has had a comparatively good climate balance and lower electricity prices than in Germany.

What's wrong with it?

Laponche:

In France, we produce 70 percent of our electricity from nuclear power. That's why we currently have an advantage in terms of the climate balance. But this is only a snapshot. At the same time, we are not meeting our climate targets. In transport and industry, we continue to focus on oil. Most of the energy production goes into nuclear energy, other sectors are neglected. And when it comes to electricity prices, we will experience another real surprise in the next few years. The prices for electricity from older reactors are still relatively low. But there are already security problems, repairs are needed, and there are more and more failures. At the same time, the new nuclear reactors blow up any cost balance. The European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR) in Flamanville was supposed to cost four billion euros,we are now at almost 20 billion. While wind and solar power are getting cheaper and cheaper, nuclear power is getting more and more expensive. This will get worse by 2030.

SPIEGEL:

In Germany, there is a discussion about whether extending the service life makes more sense in terms of climate policy than letting coal-fired power run longer.

What would you advise Germany?

Laponche:

Nuclear power is not a technology that can be used as a transition.

A gas power plant can simply be shut down.

A nuclear power plant leaves radioactive waste for thousands of years.

France recently decided to let the reactors run for 40 or maybe even 60 years.

I think that's risky.

There was a reason we only planned for 30 years back then.

The clean nuclear power narrative is now being used to promote this expensive and environmentally counterproductive energy source.

SPIEGEL:

The new German government might phase out coal as early as 2030.

Is phasing out coal and nuclear at the same time a good idea?

Laponche:

German energy policy is on the right track – and it should stay that way.

Of course, an enormous amount of wind and solar energy capacity must be added.

But it must also be about using electricity sparingly and efficiently, for example through progressive tariffs, intelligent networks, economical and efficient devices.

That would be the right and cheap way.

With additional nuclear energy, it only gets more expensive, the risk increases and the mountains of garbage get bigger.

SPIEGEL:

But your compatriots see things differently.

Emmanuel Macron even wants to build nuclear reactors.

Why is France still so nuclear-friendly?

Laponche:

It's not for technological or rational reasons, it's historical.

General de Gaulle has encouraged the development of nuclear energy in France since 1945.

First it was about military use, then also about the production of electricity.

If you listen to President Emmanuel Macron today, he adopts the same tone as de Gaulle: he talks about the fame and power of France in the context of nuclear energy.

So it's about nationalism, not about climate protection, efficiency or better technology.

SPIEGEL:

Years ago, former President François Hollande promised that France would phase out nuclear power.

Why is there a renaissance now?

Laponche:

François Hollande was a socialist president who did not prioritize this military-nationalist argument.

He understood that nuclear energy cannot be completely abolished from one day to the next, but that it must be gradually reduced.

If nuclear reactors are shut down too quickly, this also entails enormous risks.

You can see that in France at the moment.

Because several large nuclear reactors had to be shut down due to safety problems, we have to import enormous amounts of electricity from other countries.

SPIEGEL:

This includes German coal-fired power.

Laponche: Certainly

.

France made a major strategic mistake and put everything on one card.

The current problems of the different reactor types are sad proof of this.

Our energy system is therefore extremely prone to problems.

SPIEGEL:

But proponents of nuclear power argue that there are also technological advances, such as mini reactors or supposedly safe thorium reactors.

As a nuclear physicist, does this research not interest you at all?

Laponche:

Regardless of the type of reactor, there is always the same basic problem of a nuclear accident and the production of highly toxic nuclear waste.

With the so-called small, modular reactors, we have the same problem with nuclear waste.

In addition, some of them are operated with the coolant sodium.

This is highly dangerous, it ignites in air and explodes in water.

I don't think that's advisable.

I am also skeptical about new variants such as the thorium reactor.

All this is not convincing.

Research into nuclear energy should not be abandoned, and perhaps someday we will actually find a safe source of energy.

But at the moment I don't see that.

SPIEGEL:

You built the first French nuclear power plants back in the 1960s - did you have concerns back then?

Laponche:

I became a nuclear physicist because I was interested in physics and my physics teacher at the École Polytechnique advised me to go to the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique (Commission for Atomic Energy).

In the Department of Mathematical Physics, we made the reactor calculations based on experiments.

At first I didn't concern myself with the risks.

The work was interesting, we were free to research.

It was only ten years later, when I represented the interests of workers in nuclear power plants as a trade unionist, that I began to think.

I then campaigned for the safety of the employees, some of whom had to work under the most dangerous conditions.

That's when I understood that nuclear power is by no means a clean and safe source of energy.

SPIEGEL:

But you are in the minority with your attitude in France.

How come the anti-nuclear movement is so weak?

Laponche:

France is not just about how best to generate electricity. Nuclear power is a historical legacy in France, closely linked to nationalism since the Second World War. It is about alleged independence, military strength and centralism. Being against nuclear power is a taboo in France. If you want to have a career as an engineer or researcher in France, then you have to be pro-nuclear. There are therefore very few who openly criticize it. They often only dare to say something when they are retired. In France we don't have such an open culture of discussion about the energy transition as in Germany, England or the USA. That is why nuclear energy will manifest itself in France for decades to come. We miss the opportunityto create an energy mix of renewable energies, as is the case in other countries. The public will eventually pay dearly for this.

Source: spiegel

All tech articles on 2022-01-21

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