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NUCLEAR

Macron urges greater EU role in curbing nuclear threats

French President Emmanuel Macron called Friday for European nations to play a more direct role in halting a new nuclear arms race, saying they "cannot remain spectators" against a threat to the continent's collective security.

Macron urges greater EU role in curbing nuclear threats
Macron at the official launch ceremony of the new French nuclear submarine "Suffren" in Cherbourg in July 2019. Photos: AFP

“In the absence of a legal framework, they could rapidly face a new race for conventional weapons, even nuclear weapons, on their own soil,” Macron told military officers in a speech laying out France's post-Brexit nuclear strategy.

France is now the only nuclear-armed power in the European Union at a time when long-standing accords on limiting the growth of nuclear arsenals appear increasingly at risk.

The US and Russia have abandoned the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, each blaming the other for breaching its limits, and Washington is threatening to quit the New START arms reduction treaty when it expires next year.

Add to that China's bid for global sway, there is a strong need for Europe to ensure it does not find itself in the middle of a Cold War-style standoff “which could jeopardise the peace obtained after so many tragedies on our continent,” Macron said.

He warned of “the possibility of a pure and unrestrained military and nuclear competition, the likes of which we haven't seen since the end of the 1960s.”

“The vital interests of France now have a European dimension,” Macron said.

European nations should also insist on being signatories of any new deal to limit the development of new intermediate-range weapons,” he added.

“Let us be clear: if negotiations and a more comprehensive treaty are possible… Europeans must be stakeholders and signatories, because it's our territory” that is most at risk.

No sharing

France has already reduced the number of its warheads to under 300, Macron said, giving it “the legitimacy to demand concrete moves from other nuclear powers toward global disarmament that is gradual, credible and can be verified.”

But he stopped short of offering to share France's nuclear deterrence capabilities, a pillar of its security strategy since implemented by Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s.

Germany in particular remains strongly opposed to atomic weapons, although a leader in Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, Johann Wadephul, said this week that Paris should consider putting its arsenal under the auspices of the EU or NATO.

Macron invited European partners to engage in a “strategic dialogue” on the deterrent role of France's nuclear capacity as the country embarks on a costly modernisation of its arsenal.

“Our independence in terms of decision-making is fully compatible with an unshakeable solidarity with our European partners,” Macron said.

Macron also warned of the need for “a greater capacity for autonomous action by Europeans,” who must step up their military spending.

“Why are they not ready to make defence a budget priority and make the necessary sacrifices, even as the risks are growing?” Macron asked.

'Restore trust with Russia'

His speech came as a diplomatic freeze between the EU and Russia since Moscow's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has rekindled fears of fresh conflict along Europe's eastern flank.

France has broken with some EU nations by recently reaching out to restore dialogue with President Vladimir Putin, who controls the world's largest nuclear arsenal.

“There can be no defence and security project for European citizens without a political vision that seeks to progressively restore trust with Russia,” Macron said.

“We cannot accept the current situation, where the chasm deepens and talks diminish even as the security issues that need to be addressed with Moscow are multiplying.”

Macron did not specify whether Britain, Europe's other nuclear power, should be part of the deeper EU cooperation now that is has quit the bloc.

But he noted that “since 1995, France and the United Kingdom have stated clearly there is no situation in which a threat to one's vital interests would not also be a threat to the other's.”

“Brexit doesn't change this at all.”

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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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