Nuclear energy is increasingly being considered as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, as countries around world struggle to find energy solutions that will both reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and keep up with the world’s continued need for reliable power. With over 80% of its electricity coming from nuclear power, it has been suggested that France is a model for adopting a nuclear energy industry. However, Coombs (2010) suggests that France’s successful nuclear industry has been driven by the unique political and cultural climate of the country. France’s independent executive branch, characterized by a lack of division of power, a weak judiciary, and a reliance on bureaucratic capability, had the ability to efficiently institute a nuclear program without objections from outside interest groups. Additionally, the French people have been won over by the economic growth created by the nuclear industry. Finally, the lack of natural resources in the country contributed to the growth of the nuclear power program. Coombs suggests that the French government’s firm support of the nuclear industry has overshadowed the negative aspects of nuclear power, especially the problem of nuclear waste disposal. — Carolyn Campbell
Coombs, C., 2010. French Nuclear Power: A model for the world?. Hinckley Journal of Politics. 11, 7–13.
Coombs studied the costs and benefits of nuclear energy by analyzing France’s nuclear industry. France began looking into nuclear power during the 1960’s in order to decrease its dependence on foreign energy sources and was particularly affected by the quadrupling of oil prices from OPEC countries in 1973. The government began to seriously consider adopting nuclear power and was able to efficiently implement a nuclear program without much objection from outside interest groups. Coombs notes that the French executive-empowering government structure prevents activists from being involved in a transparent debate or influencing policy. Additionally, there is a cultural tendency within France to yield decision-making to the large group of trusted scientists and engineers in the country. Furthermore, French nuclear power has a number of benefits including increased job creation, state revenue, and energy independence. While nuclear power is championed in France, it is often looked upon warily in the United States. Coombs argues that this is not because the French people do not have fears about nuclear waste and accidents, but because their cultural views and political situation influence their support for nuclear energy. Additionally, the French have a lack of choice in the matter, with few alternative natural resources and a government structure that does not support political debate on such matters.
Despite the success of nuclear power, the disposal of nuclear waste continues to be an issue in France. The idea of burying the waste has brought up ideas of the profanation of soil and desecration of the Earth. Additionally, a rural/urban divide has been intensified with rural populations protesting against the Parisian’s energy waste ending up in their backyards. In order to combat these issues the state has proposed “stockpiling” the waste. This implies reversibility; that the waste will not be buried and forgotten and that future scientists may learn now to reduce or eliminate the toxicity. However, nuclear waste is a long-term problem that France has yet to develop a permanent disposal facility for. While France has come up with a way to “reprocess” fuel from spent nuclear rods, much of the revenue from this process comes from outside the country. This means that other countries, including Japan, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy, are shipping their waste to and from France. This transit of nuclear waste only increases the likelihood of an accident. However, Coombs argues that the French public places the economic benefits derived from nuclear power above the possible health risks.
Coombs concludes that since France’s nuclear program has led to enormous economic benefits, the negative byproducts of nuclear energy have been overlooked. The French government was able to institute a nuclear program due to an executive-empowering institutional structure and a trusting public. However, other countries must weigh both the costs and benefits of nuclear power when searching for renewable energy alternatives.