France facing energy headache

12th February 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Feb 11, 2007 (AFP) - French politicians and experts are scratching their heads over energy policy amid pressure to reduce the country's dependence on nuclear power while also cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

PARIS, Feb 11, 2007 (AFP) - French politicians and experts are scratching their heads over energy policy amid pressure to reduce the country's dependence on nuclear power while also cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

The left-wing candidate in the April presidential election, Segolene Royal, has pledged to cut the share of electricity generated by nuclear power to 50 percent from the current 78 percent by 2017.

The large number of nuclear reactors, environmentalists argue, constitutes a major security risk and the thorny issue of what to do with radioactive nuclear waste remains unresolved.

Royal's main rival, the right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy, has slammed Royal's proposal as "nonsensical," arguing that France's 58 nuclear power stations give the country "energy independence."

Cutting the share of electricity generated by nuclear power would also most likely mean that coal and gas-fired power stations would be called upon to fill the gap just as world governments seek to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier this month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) -- the UN's top scientific authority on global warming -- delivered its starkest warning yet on global warming.

It said the burning of fossil fuels would raise temperatures this century, worsen floods, droughts and hurricanes, melt polar ice and damage the climate system for a thousand years to come.

"It is totally impossible to reduce the share of nuclear to 50 percent and at the same time lower carbon dioxide emissions," said Colette Lewiner, energy director at Paris-based consultancy Capgemini.  

Energy specialist Jean-Marc Jancovici, meanwhile, said that reducing the share of nuclear power "would necessitate using fossil fuels."

"We would have to cut electricity consumption in half," Jancovici said.

Increasing the number of fossil fuel power stations would also lower France's self-sufficiency in energy and make it more reliant on imports, such as gas from Russia.

Governments in western Europe are nervous about becoming overly dependent on Russia for its energy needs after the flow of oil supplies from Russia through Belarus was halted last month because of a price dispute between the two countries. In 2005 gas supplies were disrupted over a price dispute with Ukraine.

Economists also point to the financial costs involved in any change in French energy policy since it would involve the decommissioning of nuclear reactors and the construction of new coal and gas-fired stations.

"Changing the system would entail a major cost that the consumer would be forced to pay," said Cyril Cochener, economist at Xerfi. "But renewing France's nuclear network, due to take place from 2020 onwards, would also have a cost."

Nuclear power currently accounts for 78 percent of France's electricity needs, with 10 percent coming from coal and gas-fired power stations, 11 percent from hydroelectricity and one percent from other renewable sources.

The European Commission -- and also the French presidential candidates having signed up to environmentalist Nicolas Hulot's green pact -- want to increase the share from renewables like solar and wind power to 20 percent by 2020.

But experts believe that France will have its work cut out to manage this, even without cutting back on nuclear power.

"Just keeping to the European objectives is a major challenge," said Patrick Criqui, head of research at the CNRS national science research centre.

One solution might be carbon capture and sequestration, a process currently in development involving the pumping of carbon dioxide underground into disused mines or caverns, Criqui believes. But this technology has yet to be used on an industrial scale.

But just as France looks at reducing its dependence on nuclear power, concern about climate change and the reliance on Russian gas supplies has led to renewed interest in nuclear power elsewhere in Europe.

France, Finland, Britain and the Baltic states have started building or look set to build next-generation nuclear plants, and even some politicians in Germany have suggested that Berlin's long-standing plan to phase out nuclear power by 2020 should be reviewed.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news, Energy

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