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Hollande visits Japan to meet anti-austerity Abe

French President François Hollande arrives in Japan on Thursday, on a mission to discuss the anti-austerity economic policies of Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, as well as close deals on the aviation industry and nuclear cooperation.

Hollande visits Japan to meet anti-austerity Abe
File photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP

Just weeks after a visit to regional rival China, French President Francois Hollande arrives in Japan on Thursday, hoping to close deals on nuclear cooperation and in the aviation sector.

He is keen, too, to learn more about "Abenomics", Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's big-spending, loose-money bid to stoke growth in the Japanese economy, to see what lessons could be applied at home

The first state visit by a French president in 17 years takes place against the backdrop of Japanese unease over France's recent moves to build a closer relationship with Beijing.

Hollande is nevertheless expected to find common ground with Abe over economic issues.

His aides have confirmed he is interested in Japan's ambitious growth measures that have seen the country show tentative but promising signs of recovery after years of crisis.

The state visit – which will also see several nuclear agreements signed – is the first by a French leader since sumo-lover Jacques Chirac's trip to Japan in 1996.

Hollande will be accompanied by six ministers, including Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Industrial Renewal Minister Arnaud Montebourg, as well as some 40 chief executives such as the head of French nuclear giant Areva.

He will be visiting a country that finally appears to be emerging from two decades of stagnation and decline on the back of the reforms enacted by Abe.

"Abenomics" features big government spending and aggressive central bank easing.

Japan posted 0.9 percent quarter-to-quarter growth in the first three months of 2013, and the International Monetary Fund expects the world's third-largest economy to expand 1.6 percent this year.

This is in sharp contrast to France, which like many European countries is in the doldrums economically. It slipped into recession in the first quarter of the year and is registering sky-high unemployment.

As a result, "Abenomics" is drawing increasing interest in Europe, where some critics of the austerity model say that Japan's approach could offer the eurozone an alternative route out of the crisis.

"The Abe government has put in place an extremely daring policy that is showing a certain amount of results," said one aide to the president. "So of course, Francois Hollande will question him on this policy."

On the diplomatic front, Japan expressed concern in March over French naval defence firm DCNS's sale of helicopter landing equipment to China.

The deal comes at a time when Beijing and Tokyo are embroiled in a tense stand-off over a chain of islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

This equipment could have a direct bearing on the row by making it easier for Chinese helicopters to land on patrol vessels that Beijing regularly sends into the disputed area, around what Japan calls the Senkaku islands and China the Diaoyu islands.

Japan has lobbied France to issue a signal of support for its position that international law supports its claim to the uninhabited but potentially resource-rich islands. But Paris has refused to publicly take any side in the dispute.

The two countries are expected to sign agreements in the nuclear sector, where some analysts see opportunities for cooperation are likely to increase.

The pro-nuclear Abe is expected by some commentators to order the re-start of more of Japan's idled nuclear reactors, despite continued public unease in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster.

Officials on both sides will sign a partnership agreement between the French government-funded organisation CEA – which does research in the nuclear field – and the NRA, Japan's atomic watchdog.

The visit is also expected to touch on the aviation sector in Japan, where European airplane maker Airbus still has some way to go to catch its US rival Boeing.

Japan's All Nippon Airways (ANA), one of the largest customers for Boeing's troubled Dreamliner, said on Monday it was considering Airbus's A350 as it looks to replace its Boeing 777 fleet.

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ENERGY

France turns off oldest nuclear plant… but not everyone is happy

France's oldest nuclear plant was switched off on Monday, ending four decades of output that built the local economy but also fuelled cross-border controversy. While environmentalists are happy with the shut down, not everyone is.

France turns off oldest nuclear plant... but not everyone is happy
The Fessenheim nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP

The second and last reactor of the plant at Fessenheim in eastern France went offline at 11pm, said state-owned power company EDF.

Anti-nuclear campaigners in France, Germany and Switzerland – who for years have warned of contamination risks, particularly after the catastrophic meltdown at Fukushima, Japan in 2011 – welcomed the closure.

But for Fessenheim Mayor Claude Brender, closing a plant that is “in good working order and has passed all the security tests” was “absurd and incomprehensible.”

“It's a tough blow for the local economy, that's for sure,” the mayor told BFMTV

'Inhuman'

At the end of 2017, Fessenheim had more than 1,000 employees and service providers on site.

Only 294 people will be needed on site for the fuel removal process until 2023, and about 60 after that for the final disassembly.

It is estimated that shutting down the reactor will put the livelihoods of 2,500 people in the tiny Alsatian community at risk, directly or indirectly.

In Fressenheim, people expressed anger over the decision, fearing for the future of the workers that would lose their jobs.

“What pain, it is inhuman what is happening,” the CGT labour union tweeted as the first switches were flicked.

“We want to die,” they tweeted.

 

The government has said workers will be transferred to other EDF sites. But many would have to leave their families behind.

Safety failures

The reactor in Fessenhaim opened in 1977 and had outlived its projected 40-year life span by three years.

While there is no legal limit on the life span of French nuclear power stations, EDF has envisaged a 40-year ceiling for all second-generation reactors, which use pressurised water technology.

France's ASN nuclear safety authority has said reactors can be operated beyond 40 years only if ambitious safety improvements are undertaken.

In the 1990s and 2000s, several safety failures were reported at Fessenheim, including an electrical fault, cracks in a reactor cover, a chemistry error, water pollution, a fuel leak, and non-lethal radioactive contamination of workers.

In 2007, the same year a Swiss study found that seismic risks in the Alsace region had been underestimated during construction, the ASN denounced a “lack of rigour” in EDF's operation of the plant.

A pro-nuclear energy group protests outside the Greenpeace headquarters in Paris the day France switched off the Fessenheim nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP

.. not done before 2040

Former president Francois Hollande pledged to close Fessenheim – on the Rhine river – but it was not until 2018 that his successor Emmanuel Macron gave the final green light.

The procedure to finally shut down the plant, four months after the first reactor was taken offline, started hours earlier than scheduled, and will be followed in the coming months and years by the site's dismantlement.

After its disconnection from the power grid Monday, it will be months before Fessenheim's reactors have cooled enough for the spent fuel to be removed.

That process should be completed by 2023, but the plant is not expected to be fully dismantled before at least 2040.

12 more closures announced

Without Fessenheim, France will still have 56 pressurised water reactors at 18 nuclear plants  generating around 70 percent of its electricity.

Only the United States, with 98, has more reactors, but France is by far the world's biggest consumer of nuclear energy.

In January, the government said it would shut 12 more reactors nearing or exceeding the 40-year limit by 2035 – when nuclear power should represent just 50 percent of the country's energy mix – in favour of renewable sources.

At the same time, EDF is racing to get its first next-generation reactor running by 2022 – 10 years behind schedule – and more may be in the pipeline.

Future plans under consideration for Fessenheim include turning it into a site for recycling low-level radioactive metal, or a biofuel plant, both promising to bring back hundreds of jobs, but neither expected to materialise for several more years.

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