In Germany the debate about the future of nuclear power is already in full swing. However, the picture in France, which has more nuclear power plants than any other European country, seems to be a totally different one. How is the nuclear catastrophe being perceived in French society?
The French society takes really seriously what is happening in Japan. Since we have the highest concentration of nuclear power plants in the EU, and nobody in France is living further away than 300 kilometers from a nuclear power plant, this catastrophe makes us feel very close to what is happening.
Being the 2nd world producer of nuclear electricity and depending on a 78% share of nuclear electricity has a huge impact on the way the French society thinks about this issue.
In fact, in France it is strictly impossible to have an adequate reaction as most of the big cities are located just next to nuclear power plants. In case of an emergency, the situation would be very hard to manage and obviously the French would not react as peacefully as the Japanese did. Everyone is admiring the peaceful Japanese reaction.
People just do not know how we could get rid of this potentially lethal source of energy. Most of them do not even believe that it is possible at all to phase-out nuclear energy. The French situation is the consequence of the oil crisis in the 1970s. De Gaulle thought that the only way to get energy independency was to be dependent on nuclear energy. The French government and the lobbyists have been working hard for years to impose the acceptability of the nuclear industry. They managed to make people feel safe living next to a nuclear power plant. In fact people are even more scared of living next to a nuclear waste disposal than a nuclear power plant. This shows some contradictions regarding the acceptance of this industry.
Following the way the government acted in 1986 (i.e. hiding the real consequences of the radioactive cloud, and saying that it stopped at the French-German border), people expected them to act in the same way in the current situation. This is why the government announced directly that there will be full transparency on what is happening in Japan. But the point is that the French Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety is only repeating the figures offered by TEPCO and the Japanese government. There are no independent figures offered except the ones from the CRIIRAD, the French independent laboratory on radioactivity, which I founded following the Chernobyl disaster.
Thus, there is great concern regarding the evolution of the situation because people know that we will have to draw lessons from this event once the catastrophe will be contained.
One thing is sure: the people realised that the government has no immediate crisis response in case of disaster. When the people went to pharmacies to buy some iodine they were not sufficiently stocked and were not immediately available for everyone.
To what extent and in what way do the French media report and comment on the current events?
There is a strong coverage of the disaster. Contrary to the usual silence surrounding the nuclear industry there is a real will to explain in detail what is happening in Japan, to illustrate the different radioactive elements that could be released, how the cooling should proceed normally, whether a radioactive cloud could potentially strike France, what should be done if so etc. All newspapers have headlines on what is happening. They are openly saying that the worst scenario could happen and that this could be even worse than the Chernobyl disaster.
All news channels are organising debates with experts from both sides: pro versus anti-nuclear. Unfortunately, people that are presented as 'neutral' nuclear experts are actually hidden pro-nuclear lobbyists.
Most of the media take the opportunity to launch the question of a public debate on nuclear energy. For the first time in France, arguments from both sides are listened to attentively.
What do the editorials say about the overall mood, do the events in Japan have the potential to shake the belief of French society in nuclear power?
The overall mood is pessimistic, and some people really think that what happened in Japan was the last warning for France. But the nuclear lobby is controlling the information to an extent that people think this disaster was finally ‘just’ a manageable catastrophe. The nuclear lobby did its best to put shame on the ecologists, saying they were taking advantage of the situation in an indecent way.
I guess we will have to wait for the outcome of this crisis to really know if this catastrophe will lead to an actual change in French society.
What is the reaction from the French government and the political families (socialists, communists, liberals and greens) so far and what tactics do you expect?
All the political families expressed deep compassion towards Japan and its inhabitants.
The Socialists called for an audit of our nuclear power plants. However, they do not wish for a referendum on the future of the nuclear industry. They finally announced that they would not oppose a nuclear phase-out in 30 years time.
The liberals demanded full transparency on the existing risk factors for the French nuclear industry.
The Greens are trying to get the oldest nuclear power plants shut down and want a public debate on energy that would lead to a referendum on the nuclear phase-out. But there are only little chances that we can obtain this. And even if we would, we are not really sure that the result would be the one we expect from it.
Michèle Rivasi is Member of the European Parliament, representing South East France for The Greens. Biologist, she founded the Commission for Independant Research and Information on Radioactivity (CRIIRAD) in 1986, following the Chernobyl disaster. Since 2009, she is Member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, and substitute Member of the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety of the European Parliament.
The interview was conducted by Annett Waltersdorf