In Strasbourg, hundreds of people gathered to demand the closure of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant, the first to be built in France in 1977. They came from France as well as nearby Switzerland and Germany, and observed a minute of silence for the more than 18,000 people who disappeared or died after the deadly earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster hit Japan’s north-eastern coast on 11 March, 2011.
Sabine Madou told AFP that France relies too heavily on nuclear power for its energy. “We have to close them down, and continue to develop renewable energy solutions,” she said.
Meanwhile in Paris, roughly 400 people marched with banners reading, “Stop nuclear power, let’s avoid disaster,” and “solidarity with Japan”.
Further east in Lyon, Greenpeace activists demonstrated in front of an office of French electric utility, Electricité de France (EDF). Bertrand Nouvelot explained to AFP why they had targeted EDF.
“The message today is very clear: EDF no longer has the means to ensure the operations and security of its nuclear power plants,” he said. “An accident could happen any day now.”
The Greenpeace members also taped signs on the walls of the office that read “EDF is collapsing – Fukushima in France”. Another sign featured a map marking the location of Bugey nuclear plant, the second-oldest in the country after Fessenheim.
Heavy reliance on nuclear
Some 70 percent of France’s electricity is generated by nuclear power from roughly 20 different power plants and 58 reactors.
Environmentalists have called for reducing France’s reliance on nuclear energy for years. The closure of Fessenheim has been of particular concern, due to its aging infrastructure and location on a seismic fault line.
Such calls have intensified since the Fukushima disaster, when tsunami waves – triggered by a 9.0 magnitude undersea earthquake – overwhelmed cooling systems at the coastal Daiichi power plant and caused meltdowns in three reactors. Japan has estimated the clean-up will take decades.
Proponents in France, however, say that the low cost of nuclear power generation is good for consumers, and argue that nuclear plants are more environment-friendly than plants powered by coal or natural gas as they emit less greenhouse gases.
One of French President François Hollande’s election pledges was to close Fessenheim by 2016. He had also called for France to reduce the percentage of energy produced by nuclear power from 70 to 50 percent by 2025, a policy that was adopted under the French Energy Transition for Green Growth Law passed in 2015.
The date for Fessenheim’s closure, however, has been pushed back to 2018. In addition, the 2015 law does not halt nuclear plant construction; rather it stipulates that EDF would have to close older reactors if it wanted to bring new ones online.
Fessenheim is now expected to close in 2018, when it will be replaced by a new plant in Flamanville, in north-western France.