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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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CLIMATE CRISIS

Scorching summer was France’s second hottest on record

Three heatwaves since June produced France's second-hottest summer since records began in 1900, the Météo France weather service said on Tuesday, warning that scorching temperatures will be increasingly common as the climate crisis intensifies.

Scorching summer was France's second hottest on record

With 33 days of extreme heat overall, average temperatures for June, July and August were 2.3C above normal for the period of 1991-2020.

It was surpassed only by the 2003 heatwave that caught much of France unprepared for prolonged scorching conditions, leading to nearly 15,000 heat-related deaths, mainly among the elderly.

Data is not yet available for heat-related deaths this summer, but it is likely to be significantly lower than 15,000 thanks to preventative measures taken by local and national authorities. 

Most experts attribute the rising temperatures to the climate crisis, with Météo France noting that over the past eight summers in France, six have been among the 10-hottest ever.

By 2050, “we expect that around half of summer seasons will be at comparable temperatures, if not higher,” even if greenhouse gas emissions are contained, the agency’s research director Samuel Morin said at a press conference.

The heat helped drive a series of wildfires across France this summer, in particular a huge blaze in the southwest that burned for more than a month and blackened 20,000 hectares. 

Unusually, wildfires also broke out even in the normally cooler north of the country, and in total an area five times the size of Paris burned over the summer. 

Adding to the misery was a record drought that required widespread limits on water use, with July the driest month since 1961 – many areas still have water restrictions in place.

MAP: Where in France are there water restrictions and what do they mean?

Forecasters have also warned that autumn storms around the Mediterranean – a regular event as air temperatures cool – will be unusually intense this year because of the very high summer temperatures. A storm that hit the island of Corsica in mid August claimed six lives. 

“The summer we’ve just been through is a powerful call to order,” Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said on Monday, laying out her priorities for an “ecological planning” programme to guide France’s efforts against climate change.

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