France and nuclear power

By Razib Khan | August 16, 2008 8:22 pm

France Reaffirms Its Faith in Future of Nuclear Power:

Nuclear power provides 77 percent of France’s electricity, according to the government, and relatively few public doubts are expressed in a country with little coal, oil or natural gas.

France generates half of its own total energy, up from 23 percent in 1973, despite increased consumption.
Electrical power generation accounts for only 10 percent of France’s greenhouse gases, compared with an average of 40 percent in other industrialized countries, according to EDF.

There is No Free Lunch, and life is about trade offs. Those who live in the American Pacific Northwest know this well; hydroelectric power is great and low risk, and results in cheap electricity which helps drive high tech industry such as aerospace and electronics. But, there are ecological downsides.
The key isn’t to rely on a silver-bullet energy source which we need faith in. Rather, it’s to evaluate and weight the risks and rewards of various technological portfolios. Any given action will have costs, we simply have to judge whether the benefits are worth those costs. As it is, most of the objection nuclear to power seems almost animistic at the root. These sorts of “gut-level” heuristics and biases draw upon the same “wisdom of repugnance” which is wielded against biological engineering and technology, though of course with coalitional politics being what they are different sects, so to speak, emphasize different domains when it comes to unleashing their intuitive aversion.
Note: The sign of the reflexive vector can go in both directions. Today many people have a strong bias against nuclear energy based on a small number of accidents and disasters, while in the 1950s the belief in its ability to free up humanity was almost religious and messianic. Both stances are problematic, and I believe fundamentally not rooted in empiricism as opposed to faith.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Good thing you slipped that note in there, much of the support I’ve seen for nuclear power seems to be just as reflexive. As you say, there are legitimate costs and benefits to nuclear power, and it’s not just the anti-nuke folks that ignores the flip side of the coin.
    My personal feeling is that solar and wind are going to be the two major short term solutions: Solar to reduce the peak-hours need for centralized power, wind replacing the bulk of current coal generating plants, and then nuclear and hydroelectric picking up the slack from the variable nature of wind and solar availability. While I think nuclear is going to be the long term solution, my money’s on fusion rather than fission.

  • Paulidan

    True true, nuclear power is a method of generating baseload energy, nothing more, nothing less. It won’t make energy to cheap to meter, but it provides a realistic scientifically safe (though perhaps intuitively regunant) form of baseload power generation. You can’t put the entire grid on solar and wind, but you definitly could with nuclear, and fast too.

  • davidp

    What’s France doing with its nuclear waste ?
    I know they re-proocess a lot, with discharges of substantial radioactivity into the atlantic ocean, but what do they do with the leftovers?

  • tercel

    “I know they re-proocess a lot, with discharges of substantial radioactivity into the atlantic ocean, but what do they do with the leftovers?”
    That sounds incredibly unlikely. A re-processing fuel cycle leaves behind very very little waste, which is not very radioactive and only for a few hundred years. This is easily and safely stored. There is no benefit I can imagine in releasing “radioactivity” into the ocean.
    Furthermore, you confuse radioactivity with radiation, or with radioactive material. Radioactivity is the name of a property possessed by some elements. These elements are radioactive, and the radiation emitted by them is different from those elements themselves. Radiation is not some sort of material that can be “discharged.”
    Now, despite your misunderstanding I know what you meant, but such a basic mistake would suggest that you aren’t really familiar with the subject. This, combined with their inherent dubious nature, makes me doubt your claims. Do you have any sources for what you say?

  • tevebaugh

    The key isn’t to rely on a silver-bullet energy source
    Indeed. I’d like to see a feeding-frenzy of research into any number of fossil-fuel alternatives, since the technology we have isn’t enough to carry us without them right now. I’m pulling for hydrogen-producing, genetically engineered bacteria, but I think I’ve got a while to wait…
    Nuclear is an expensive proposition. Paul Roberts* and Richard Heinberg** have more to say about why it’s an option, but not a great one.
    *The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World. Mariner Books, 2004.
    **The Party’s Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Societies. New Society Publishers, 2005.

  • tercel

    Oh no, not the “nuclear is expensive” thing again. This is repeated so often, one might actually get the idea that its true. Of course, nuclear generated electricity is actually some of the cheapest there is. For example, France produces most of its electricity with nuclear plants, and they pay roughly 22 cents/kWh. Even this price is inflated by the electricity demand in neighboring countries, to which France is a major electricity exporter. Still, it is below the average for the EU.
    Sure, there is a large start-up cost for a plant, which makes it risky for investors, but that isn’t really the issue here. Its not our job to avoid producing demand for something simply because we don’t want to scare those poor investors.

  • tercel
  • NM

    “What’s France doing with its nuclear waste ? ”
    Currently they’re basically stored in a warehouse. Storing thousand of tonnes takes surprisingly little space. This is not a long term solution, but it has one major ethical advantage over coal burning: those who use it have to deal with it, instead of spewing it in the atmosphere for everyone else to deal it.

  • Fred

    Before any new power plants of any type are built, we need to look at increased consumption efficiency. California (where I live) has had an essentially flat per capita electricity use for three decades. Even with huge growth in electricity hungry industries like computer technology, per capita efficiency has stayed flat. The state has done two things. It has consistently promoted efficient energy use to consumers and it changed the laws so that utility companies can make money without having to sell more and more electricity.
    If the rest of the country started to pursue efficiency like California (some states are moving in this direction), we wouldn’t have to build another power plant of any kind until 2030.
    Considering the political and financial ineptitude that typically characterizes California, it’s hard to believe that the state got this right by much more than luck.
    But we have to build eventually: so I have a question. Does anybody have a source that compares the radiation releases from coal burning to the radiation releases from nuclear power plant accidents? My recollection from years ago is that they are roughly comparable but I do not know if that is accurate. Can someone help me out on this?

  • davidp

    If you look at la Hague’s web site you will find that in 2007 they discharged 12 000 TBq of tritium in their liquid releases and 237 000 TBq of radioactive Noble gases in their gaseous releases. You find this “incredibly unlikely”.
    The releases disperse well (strong currents disperse the liquids), so the intensity levels stay low.
    This IEEE Spectrum article about reprocessing says la Hague’s reprocessing does produce high level waste. The article tells me la Hague vitrify their waste in borosilicate glass, but it doesn’t say where the canisters of vitrified waste go. About 4% of the spent fuel rods ends in the vitrified waste. I haven’t looked up the half lives of the components of that waste.
    The Spectrum article is less positive about the waste produced when using mixed Uranium-Plutonium fuel, which they need to do if they don’t want to treat the plutonium as long term waste.

  • BRC

    There are key moral and cultural differences at play here that belie claims that the issue could either be understood either as “not rooted in empiricism” or only about “faith.” I’d like to see the discussion taking that anti-silver bullet tack (i.e., w/r/t solutions to energy problems there is no silver bullet) and apply it to an analysis of the merits and place of nuclear energy in cultural terms. That is, it isn’t *only* faith, nor is it *only* anti-empiricist. There are no silver-bullet explanations for nuclear debates.
    For example, on the matter of “what does France do with its waste,” one finds that they don’t conceive of it as waste in the same way Anglos do — even the term, “waste,” implies trash, garbage, refuse, something to be disposed of like a used paper towel in the kitchen trashcan under the sink. That is, invisible and hidden. The French have a more robust system of nuclear fuel management — they watch it, they know its there, they check back in, they consider it something to monitor and manage for the long haul, not something to hide away, running as fast as possible and hoping nothing bad happens. I’m being general here — of course nobody considers Yucca Mountain a place to ignore once the waste is there — but what I mean to say is that spent nuclear fuel has different meaning in France than it does in the US. It isn’t like they love it; let’s not paint a picture of the French hugging their nuclear waste. The point is that nuclear energy production, distribution, and disposal all have a different meaning there than in the US. None of that is against empirical consideration; nor could it make sense without an understanding of the cultural basis for faith in energy solutions.

  • tevebaugh

    it’s overhauling the entire energy economy to center on nuclear power that will cost us, if you’re going to take the french tack. connect “nuclear” with “patriotism” in the u.s., and you might have a fighting chance.

  • Clark

    Sadly the greatest expenses with nuclear power in the US are due to fears about it. Lots of environmental reports and lawsuits to deal with delaying production. And even in the off chance you could build a station you have to deal with all the protests.
    I just have little faith people could deal with the issue rationally.
    France sounds interesting. What kind of safeguards do they have in place for their storage though? I think the valid concern many Americans have is that (a) they’ve been lied to a lot by the government about nuclear stuff so they have little trust and (b) when someone says something is unlikely and it happens…


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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