F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
October 2006 
Vol. 35, No. 4



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Nuclear Energy in France: Public Perception (2006)

Michel Lung and Berol Robinson

In this essay, we shall try to analyze the development of the public’s perception of nuclear energy from the beginning until today (April 2006). We will follow the fluctuations of public opinion as they reflect national and international events, public policy as well as known and hidden influences. Therefore we shall take a historical path.

1. The beginnings – 1945 to 1960

At the end of the war, everything had to be rebuilt. The Marshall Plan helped us do that. Influenced by a few scientists who had contributed to nuclear physics before the war and during the war in the USA and Canada , General de Gaulle founded the “Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique” (CEA) in 1945. ZOE, the first experimental pile, went critical in 1948. It was a great boost for the public reputation of French science and engineering, and it led us to entertain great hopes for the future. “Atomic energy”, as we called it then, seemed to have fair sailing. Every country wanted its reactor, even tiny Luxembourg . In 1956, the first nuclear electricity in France was widely acclaimed. The first gas-cooled graphite-moderated reactors with natural uranium fuel produced weapons-grade plutonium, which was separated in the reprocessing plants at Marcoule (1958) and at La Hague (1960). De Gaulle wanted a nuclear defense and his successors, whether Socialist or Communist, were of the same opinion. The first bomb was tested in 1960.

But that plutonium was also to be used in breeder reactors because it was already clear to our leaders that we ought not be satisfied with the one part in 140 (0.7%) represented by the fissionable isotope U-235, but rather that we should extract all the nuclear energy from natural uranium. Rapsodie, the first fast neutron reactor, was built at Cadarache under the direction of Georges Vendryes and went critical in 1967.

In that pioneer period we were already concerned about the proper way to handle highly radioactive long-lived nuclear waste. With the cooperation of the glass industry, the CEA perfected the Piver method of vitrification (1969), later transformed into the continuous AVM process. Starting as early as 1954, first at Saclay and then at Cherbourg, the CEA trained a corps of engineers specialized in the design and safe operation of nuclear reactors.

In brief, it was a euphoric time and the public and the media enthusiastically greeted the success of our engineers, led by the graduates of our Ecole Polytechnique. Even our mineral waters advertised their slight radioactivity as a desirable quality. 

We must not forget President Eisenhower and his Atoms for Peace initiative (1954) which led to the organization of the well known Geneva conferences on civilian applications of nuclear energy (1955, 1958, etc.), the creation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at Vienna (1957), and the spread of swimming pool research reactors for universities The Euratom Treaty, parallel to the Treaty of Rome founding the Common Market of six European countries, was also signed in 1957.

2. Continuity – 1960 to 1970

Strengthened by popular approval, the government of France continued to invest in nuclear energy, following the examples set by the USA, Canada, its neighbors in Europe, especially the United Kingdom and Germany, and by the Soviet Union. Their resolve was further strengthened by the scarcity of domestic coal and oil resources and by the fact that dams had already been built on most of the potential hydroelectric sites. The CEA opened uranium mines in France and invested in uranium mining abroad. The state-owned electricity monopoly, Electricité de France (EdF), was urged to invest in the new power.

After the success of Admiral Rickover with nuclear submarines, the pressurized water reactor (PWR) at Shippingport PA and General Electric’s boiling water reactor, and in view of the satisfactory performance of the small Franco-Belgian power plant at Chooz (1967), essentially a Westinghouse PWR, a “committee of wise men” meeting upon the initiative of Marcel Boiteux, Director General of EdF and a leading figure in the nuclear program, decided to abandon the line of gas-cooled graphite-moderated light water reactors in favor of the Westinghouse PWR (1969). This decision also took into account the fact that enriched uranium was already available from the plant at Pierrelatte, and that more would eventually come from Tricastin. It was decided then to focus on the PWR, which was bit by bit “Frenchified” by the builder Framatome, initially a joint venture of the Westinghouse and the Belgian group Empain-Schneider, later CEA and Empain-Schneider.

Public opinion followed these developments with interest and passion. However, atmospheric weapons testing, mainly American and Soviet, led to medical concerns about radioactive fall-out, especially radio-strontium; and the tests went underground starting about 1966. Furthermore, prominent people began to worry about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, with talk and rumors from Israel , Pakistan , India and Argentina .

The May 1961 Oslo Conference against the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons gave Nikita Khrushchev the occasion to adopt a pacifist position, and high level clubs like Pugwash (founded in 1957) began to ask questions. In brief a certain pacifist movement was born which surreptitiously began to shake the blind faith in this new form of energy, in France as elsewhere. Among great voices, that of Linus Pauling (Nobel Peace Prize 1962) had a strong impact on the public opinion.

3.  The period from 1970 to 1981

This period was a turning point in France and probably in the whole Western world. Civilian nuclear energy was keeping its promises; one had confidence in it. The oil shocks of 1973 and later, the lack of domestic fossil fuel reserves in France, a rapidly expanding economy and a highly centralized and technocratic government under President Pompidou led to a forced march to build nuclear plants in order to free the country of its dependence on foreign sources of energy which might compromise its economic growth. EdF and Framatome began an “assembly line” of PWR reactors, to the point of starting four a year, first 900 MW, then 1300 MW. It was a major financial and industrial effort, but the country was proud it. EdF was able to site reactors with no great difficulty, profit-sharing grants to nearby towns helped, new installations brought well paying jobs, the government supported it all, and the Communist Party, powerful in France and in control of the CGT labor union, approved of the investments.

The first reactor went on grid in 1977; it was a 900 MW PWR at Fessenheim in Alsace, on the Rhine. It was followed by over fifty more in the space of twenty years. The fast neutron reactor Phenix had gone on grid in 1973 and was running very well; the next step would be Superphenix. Reprocessing and enrichment, too, were going well. “Everything was for the best in the best of all worlds”. The French public was satisfied and nuclear energy was welcomed.

But a dark cloud loomed on the horizon about 1970 with the founding of Greenpeace and a number of concerns which had begun to appear a few years earlier in certain circles. Pacifism began to invade the West and people began to draw a parallel between civilian nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pacifist movements and the distrust of all technocracy became fashionable. The student movements of 1968, especially widespread in France , had a lot to do with this state of affairs; and we see the effects among the French media and especially among the French governing class to this very day.

The 1972 fire in the Windscale reprocessing plant ( UK ) had strong repercussions, although there had been hardly a murmur 15 years before when a plutonium production reactor on the same site suffered a dangerous and disabling fire with extensive radioactive pollution. In 1976 President Ford deferred the opening of the Barnwell (SC) commercial reprocessing plant, citing the risk of proliferation. The next year his successor, Jimmy Carter, ended all work on reprocessing by permanently abandoning Barnwell; and he tried to convince the British, the French and the Japanese to do the same, to no avail. But the measure was widely acclaimed in pacifist and socialist circles, as well as by Greenpeace, WWF and others, including the Aga Khan at Geneva. The Green movement grew fat, supported by the leftist movements (“Besser Rot als tot” [Better Red than dead] as they said in Germany ). It was at the height of the Cold War with tactical nuclear weapons installed in Europe, nuclear-armed bombers crashing with local contamination. All this contributed to public concern. It was at this time, for example, that International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW,) was founded (1980). Environmental concerns were growing, and in the 1980s the Norwegian Gro Brundtland launched her famous notion of “sustainable development”, following the ideas of the Club of Rome.

The French managed to resist these sentiments pretty well, perhaps on account of the military component in the national nuclear industry. At the request of President Carter, whom he met on a Concorde visit to Martinique, President Giscard d’Estang, himself a Polytechnician, stopped all French aid to Pakistan, but refused to halt reprocessing in France. At the same time he launched the construction of Superphenix (December 1976), a liquid-sodium cooled breeder reactor of 1200 MW, declaring that “with this new type of reactor and domestic uranium resources, the country possessed as much energy as Kuwait with all its oil.” Although correct, it was a regrettable statement; for it led more than one oil-rich country to reflect upon its implications for its own relations with France . The result was not long in appearing: in July 1976 tens of thousands of demonstrators from all over Europe were mobilized on the site of the future Superphenix, by then an international project including Italy , Germany and Benelux. And the following July there were over 100 000 demonstrators; one person died and several were injured, one seriously.

In 1979 the Three Mile Island (PA) accident cost its owner dearly, but no one was injured or even much irradiated, thanks to the confinement structure of the PWR, like those built in France . But what a racket! A catastrophe! The “China Syndrome” and all (the film with Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon had just appeared!). One is reluctant to believe that all this public reaction was spontaneously generated. (Look for the “master mind” directing traffic. Your suggestions are welcome.)

In France , public opinion favorable to nuclear power received a blow. On the political scene, the Socialist Party led by Mitterrand sought to replace the liberal government of Giscard [N.B. in France “liberal” means “market economy.”]. In their program, besides the alliance with the Communists and the Greens, the nuclear question appeared in the form of a vow to stop the nuclear power program and especially reprocessing (without which nuclear is not viable for the long term).

4. The Socialist period – 1981 to 1986 – a period of “resistance”.

The presidential elections of 1981 brought the Socialists to power under President Mitterrand, and everything nuclear in France began to shake in its boots. But the Communists and the CGT (Communist-dominated trade union) would not agree to stopping the on-going program or to interrupt construction in progress. Mitterrand, as a concession to his party members, immediately cancelled the plans for a power station at Plogoff on the coast of Brittany, which had been the subject of demonstrations for years, but he continued to support nuclear power as he had years before as minister in diverse functions during the IV Republic (1945-58). The nuclear industry had had a near miss. But public convictions were shaken by the sight of the government’s hesitations and its inability to keep the new ministers in line on the question of nuclear energy. The ideas of the Greens took center stage and their simplistic point of view pleased the media. “Scientific matters are not a dogma, one had better beware.”

Then there was the unfortunate affair of the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. It was a small sailboat, used by Greenpeace to protest French weapons testing in the Pacific; and it was torpedoed by a French secret service commando in Auckland harbor (NZ), killing one man and injuring several others. That episode contributed to a weakening of the image of the “authorities” in nuclear matters.

Thus public opinion began to waver around 50% for or against “le nucléaire”. In spite of it all, but more discretely than before, newly built reactors were put on the grid. The two new reprocessing plants at La Hague, each one able to treat 800 tons a year, were built normally under the direction of COGEMA, created by the CEA in 1977. Superphenix went into operation in 1986 after having be subjected to a rocket attack in 1982 (rockets supplied courtesy of the international terrorist Carlos). Greenpeace went from demonstration to demonstration at reactor sites. Greenpeace-France spoke man-to-man with the minister of the environment. Its “bêtes noires” were carefully and strategically targeted: the reprocessing plant at La Hague, the Superphenix reactor, the transport of radioactive material; if any were stopped the nuclear industry would be strangled.

It was at this moment that the slogans appeared which are well known to the “nuclear lobby”: “we don’t know what to do with nuclear waste, there are no solutions, we will leave it to future generations”, etc. These slogans hit a bull’s eye in the press and media, and the public fell for it. We have seen that the farther the public is from a nuclear plant, the easier it is to make an impression on them; people who live nearby, familiar with the industry, have more confidence in it.

5. The thunder clap of Chernobyl26 April 1986

It would take volumes to recount the exaggerations in the press and television of this “soviet” accident and the political and media fallout. The Central Service for Protection against Ionizing Radiation (SCPRI), an agency of the Ministry of Health, was among the first, after Sweden , to detect the radioactive cloud thanks to monitors installed on international air liners and a centralized automatic network of monitors covering all of France . Professor Pierre Pellerin, director of SCPRI, following the measurements closely over the long May 1 weekend (Labor Day in Europe), observed that the radioactive “cloud” had indeed reached France , but judged that the radioactivity was not strong enough to imperil the public health. In some of the neighboring countries, the conclusions were different, coming close to panic. The French media, supported by the “anti-nuclears”, seized upon the question to say that Pellerin had lied, that he obeyed the “nuclear lobby” to protect the industry, that he was responsible for hundreds of thyroid cancers. (A steady increase in the occurrence of thyroid cancers dates from 1975, ten years before Chernobyl, and it is observed even in places like Canada, never touched by Chernobyl fallout.) Law suits were pressed and Pellerin won them all; but even so, on this twentieth anniversary of the accident, the media are still persuaded that the government lied to the French, and it’s a veritable witch hunt against the nuclear lobby, the “nucleocrats”, with many films, lectures by visitors from Ukraine and Belorus, regions which obviously suffered directly from the catastrophe. The movement in France is so intense that one has become suspicious: Why? And especially whose money is paying for the propaganda?

When they are shown pictures of deformed babies, the well-meaning public has doubts: Are they hiding something from us? Suppose our reactors exploded like Chernobyl? Is it true that the storage pools at La Hague have the equivalent of hundreds of Chernobyls? The IAEA estimates that Chernobyl will have caused at most 4000 cancers: but maybe Greenpeace is right with 100,000, or even 6 million ? And now comes our French Nobelist Georges Charpak and his American friend Richard Garwin who recently published a book in French entitled “De Tchernobyl en Tchernobyls”. This appears to be a translation of their successful “Megawatts and Megatons”. When asked about the title, Garwin replied “One is not in complete control of one’s publisher”. So much for today’s hard sell anti-nuclear publicity campaign. What’s next?

In any event, Chernobyl has turned out to be an extraordinary lever, and it has been powerfully exploited against nuclear energy, at least in Western Europe, and especially in France .

6. The period from 1986 to 2002: decline and distrust

It will help to say a few words about the structure of the French government. The president used to be elected for a term of seven years, reduced to five years starting 2002. The Chamber of Deputies, now called the National Assembly, is elected for five years, but the president may dissolve it and call new elections. The president selects the prime minister from the majority in the Chamber, and the ministers who constitute the Government must be approved by the Chamber. The Socialist Mitterrand was president from 1981 until 1995 (7 + 7) and was succeeded by the liberal Chirac whose term ends in 2007 (7 + 5) (liberal means market-economy oriented). During this period, the government alternated between Socialist-Communist-Green coalitions and liberal majorities in the Chamber. From 1981 to 1986 the regime was Socialist. From 1986 to 1988 the socialist President Mitterrand had to live with a liberal majority in the Chamber. From 1988 to 1993 the regime was Socialist again. From 1993 to 1995 the government was again liberal. In 1995 the new President Chirac had a liberal majority, but from 1997 he had to live with a Socialist government. Finally, in 2002, Chirac was re-elected with a liberal majority, which is still in office.

In 1986, the reactor program was well under way, and it was completed despite the alternation of governments, largely due to the presence in all governments of some perceptive ministers. With a certain amount of beating around the bush, the four big PWRs (1450 MW) were completed, two at Chooz and two at Civaux; the last one went on grid at the end of 1999.

But one could feel a certain growing distrust in French public opinion, stoked by anti-nuclear attitudes of the media, fed by Greenpeace, the Greens, WWF and other organizations, branching out in neighboring countries, at the headquarters of the European Community in Brussels, and especially in the European Parliament. Some anti-nuclear organisms appeared, such as WISE, Sortir du Nucléaire (“Let’s get out of nuclear power”) which claims to coordinate the operations of 700 anti-nuclear associations, CRIIRAD (an “independent commission” on information about radiation) and others. The Ministry of the Environment and ADEME, its agency for energy conservation, became hot beds of the anti-nuclear movement. During the years of Socialist government, the Greens managed to place their friends in various organs of the administration and most are still in place. Greenpeace mounted some incredible demonstrations to protest the La Hague reprocessing plant, and to impede the transport of spent fuel domestically and from Japan and Germany and the return of the waste to those countries. But public opinion did not completely follow; the program ran out of steam and demonstrations were in the end abandoned, not without leading one participant to die on a railroad track in France . Already in 1977, the residence of Marcel Boiteux, president of EdF, had been blown up with a plastic bomb; but the culmination was the horrible murder in 1986 of Georges Besse by Action Directe, a French terrorist organization. President of Eurodif and COGEMA, he had built the uranium enrichment plant at Tricastin and imparted a remarkable impetus to our nuclear industry; his perception and human qualities were appreciated by all.

In 1991, Mitterrand’s Socialist Prime Minister Rocard wanted to find an underground site for highly radioactive long lived waste, but a unanimous popular protest, inflamed by the Greens, led him to put off all decisions for 15 years. Well, here we are, in 2006, and nothing is less uncertain, although the present government favors a reasonable solution for an underground repository, with deposits being reversible for a certain period of years.

During these years we have seen Italy renounce its nuclear program; activities frozen in Germany , Belgium , and Spain ; and the entry into the European Community of some violently anti-nuclear countries – Austria , Denmark and Ireland . So the European Commission has become very discrete about nuclear energy, in spite of the efforts of the remarkable Commissioner Loyola de Palacio.

In 1995, Jacques Chirac became president of France and wanted to show his mettle through a series of weapons tests in the Pacific, before the test center at Mururoa would be permanently closed. This gratuitous decision was not appreciated in world at large and was received in various ways in France . It certainly did not strengthen the public image of civilian nuclear energy, while the Greens and Greenpeace were only too happy to take advantage of the occasion to connect nuclear power with the bomb. On the other hand, the Navy’s arrest of the Greenpeace commando at Mururoa was rather well received.

But in 1997 the Green Minister of the Environment, Dominique Voynet, (1997 – 2001) struck a devastating blow at the French nuclear program. She demanded that her Socialist Prime Minister Jospin agree to the permanent and definitive closure of the Superphenix, without consulting France ’s European partners, Italy , Germany and Benelux. She monitored the operation herself to be sure that the reactor would never run again. All efforts to save the machine were in vain, although it had functioned well after a difficult start up period. This act cost the French taxpayers the tidy sum of 15 billion Euros (US$18B) and set the country back fifty years. (Dominique Voynet now represents the Green Party in the French Senate.)

This period of uncertainty, after Chernobyl and Dominique Voynet, was very unfortunate for the public image of nuclear energy. Henceforth it would not be “honorable” to defend it; a journalist would call you the devil’s advocate, or a “nuclearist”” or even worse a “nucleocrat”. Leaders in the government would hardly mention nuclear energy at all, as if the industry were taboo.

But a few voices were raised against this ostracism. In particular, AEPN (l’Association des Ecologistes Pour le Nucléaire) founded in 1996, which has thousands of supporters, which is spreading world wide and which works in coordination with similar organizations abroad (EFN, Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy). Other organizations, mostly of retired engineers, are equally active in informing the public. The SFEN (Société Française d’Energie Nucléaire), the SFR (Société Française de Radioprotection), the Academy of Science and the Academy of Medicine are playing an increasingly active role. They are well known in scientific circles, but it is a struggle to get their voice heard by the media who are still distrustful.

7. From 2002 until now.

We now have a “liberal” government in France, a “right wing” government, under President Chirac and his Prime Ministers Raffarin, then de Villepin. We speak more and more these days of the likely consequences of an enhanced greenhouse effect (Kyoto 1997, Johannesburg 2002), of the end of oil and gas in this century and the associated price increase. Yet when Roselyne Bachelot, the new Minister of the Environment, thoughtlessly suggested that nuclear energy might make up for a shortage of oil, she was rebuked by her prime minister for having said an unseemly word. The rule is “conservation and renewable energies”, especially to build wind turbines, following our neighbor Germany, the world champion. The new Minister of Industry, Nicole Fontaine, supported Mme Bachelot, and she was similarly called to order by Raffarin. But she managed to organize a series of public debates on energy around the country. They were well received by an informed public, and led up to the National Debate on Nuclear Energy ending late 2005, dealing with nuclear waste and the proposal to build an EPR – European Pressurized Reactor (a Generation III reactor) to begin to replace the aging reactors of the 1970’s. Although not widely followed, the Debate had the virtue of making the media speak of energy problems and to help extract nuclear power in France from its (self-imposed) ghetto.

The USA with President Bush’s recent announcement, and Finland starting construction of an EPR, its fifth reactor, have given a push. China and India have announced nuclear ambitions; in view of their enormous needs it seems inevitable. Japan , South Korea and Russia are moving forward. The USA had initiated and supported the Generation IV International Forum. Government people are beginning to talk nuclear in France and President Chirac approves. About 70 % of the public are aware of France ’s advantageous position; but the public, the students, the ordinary medical doctors, are very little informed. Many people still believe that a few wind turbines can replace a central power station. The teaching profession is invaded by the Left and the Greens, and most teachers refuse to offer objective information about energy. And every year in April the media serve up afresh the story of Chernobyl with ever more cancers and deaths (up to six million!). This year, on the twentieth anniversary, they are presenting a veritable festival of films and “documents”. In public debates, the unfortunate “nuclearists” have to face crowds of anti-nukes who generally know very little but who are firmly convinced that simplistic arguments will move the audience, repeating incessantly their claims that the government as well as the IAEA and WHO are lying to protect a “nuclear lobby”. Except for the Minister of Research, the government has been silent.

Quite recently however (April 21, 2006) three ministers who supervise nuclear activities in France, the Ministers of Industry, Environment and Public Health, have declared in a press release that thyroid cancers in France cannot today be attributed to the fallout of the “Chernobyl cloud”. But the press didn’t pay much attention to it. AREVA and EdF are similarly silent, as is the Parliament. Their reluctance to speak may be due to the fact that a group of thyroid sufferers are now suing the government for not having taken measures to protect them from the disease, a disease which specialists say cannot have been caused by Chernobyl’s fallout. The law suit is advancing, and the anti-nukes are taking full advantage of it.

The recently organized international antinuclear demonstration in Normandy, at the site proposed for the EPR, recalls to mind those mounted against Superphenix thirty years ago. But things are different now and it seems that these demonstrations will not be taken as seriously as they were in the past, especially with current alarming talk about running out of oil and the price of gas at the pump.

We should also note with satisfaction that the Socialist Party, now in opposition, has prudently declared that if they were elected next year (May 2007), they would not phase out nuclear energy in France , only rearrange it somewhat. UDF, the centrist party, followed suit.


Am I trying to tell you that this is the swan song of the anti-nuclear movement in France ? I feel that the anti-nukes are more and more running into the wall of physical and economic reality; and that the public is, in spite of all, beginning to have a feeling for energy problems, if only in their wallet. Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK are weighing the possibility of returning to nuclear energy. Mr Putin’s natural gas will cost more, while China and India are competing for oil. In the West, France is still the pioneer and leader in nuclear energy, and it’s not by chance that France is the principal target of the anti-nuclear movement.

The parliamentary debate on the future of long-lived nuclear waste will take place at the end of 2006. We can therefore expect continued activity all year long. With the election of a president scheduled for May 2007, it would be surprising if any firm decisions were taken before then. But we are moving forward, if only slowly, toward more objective information on the major problem worrying the public: What to do with nuclear waste?

In summary, the weight of reality will gradually be felt in France and those in favor of nuclear energy will be able to speak out more freely, in spite of the powerful anti-nuclear propaganda, for one must call it that. We may expect the French public, especially the older citizens and the youth, to massively come around to the cause of nuclear energy, which has faithfully provided 80% of their electricity in a most satisfactory way. Objections will still be raised on the basis of proliferation and terrorism, but nowadays the French people know how to distinguish between accepted technical risks, inherent in any activity, which must be minimized as much as possible, and political risks, which are left to the government leaders to tackle.

As often occurs in Old Europe, the signal will come from America . Their attitude is more straightforward than ours. It will also come from the new countries of Eastern Europe, which have brought the European Community to its current strength of 25, and from countries which hope to join soon. For them nuclear energy is the key to their economic growth and well being.

Michel Lung is former Director in the Areva group, He is a chemical engineer (MS, University of Washington, Seattle) and received the MS in nuclear engineering from Saclay, France . He is a founding member of AEPN-EFN, and treasurer of EFN-USA.


 Berol Robinson (PhD Hopkins ‘53) is former science and science education officer of UNESCO, member of APS, early member of AEPN-EFN and president of EFN-USA.







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