The Mind-Boggling Cost of a Theoretical French Nuclear Accident

By Paul Gipe

Official Report Says “A Major Nuclear Accident in France Would be an Unmanageable European Catastrophe”

The metaphorical fallout from Fukushima continues to weigh on the world’s nuclear industry.

The latest blow comes from an unexpected source, a French-government funded agency, the Institut de radioprotection et de sûreté nucléaire (IRSN) or the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety.

In a brief seven-page paper for Eurosafe, the European reactor safety organization, the IRSN authors take the reader on a walk through the subtle semantics of nuclear-disaster speak. For example, what is the difference between a “Severe” nuclear accident and a “Major” one? The answer is about €300 billion ($400 billion) or “an unmanageable European catastrophe.”

More significant than the findings themselves is the fact that IRSN makes such a statement publicly.

France has the highest concentration of nuclear power in the world. The more than 60,000 MW of nuclear capacity in France from some 60 reactors meets 80% of the country’s electricity consumption.

Since Louis XIV, the Sun King, political power in France has been concentrated in the hands of a select few in the capital, Paris. Despite repeated efforts to devolve power to the regions in the decades following WWII, the French elite (the product of the grandes écoles) is concentrated in the central government and in the administration of the country’s largest corporations.

Probably no country in the world is better suited than France for the centralized decision making necessary for such a commitment to nuclear power. And the French elite, politicians and administrators, almost universally endorse France’s nuclear bargain, made after the economic disruptions caused by the oil crises of the 1970s.

In turn, French leaders have been dismissive of renewable energy–when they have deigned to tolerate it. Despite a long history in wind-energy research, France has installed little more wind generating capacity than Great Britain, another laggard in renewable energy development in comparison to Denmark, Spain, and Germany.

France has prided itself on its cadre of technicians who keep their aging reactor fleet running. The country is literally putting its life in their hands. So, it was stung  by the French nuclear industry’s reaction to Chernobyl.

While the Swiss and German governments were warning their citizens to take protective action, France was reassuring its people that all was well. In a now infamous incident, France was showing the plume of radioactive fallout from Chernobyl suddenly stopping at the French border.

This was simply too much, even in France. Since then the industry, its regulators, and the government have been trying to regain the moral high ground.

It was the Fukushima disaster that gave French nuclear regulators and safety organizations an opportunity to demonstrate their new found openness. And they performed well. French radiological technicians regularly reported releases, and modeled global fallout from the Japanese reactors. Their regular and reliable reports became standard fare in news reports worldwide during the days and weeks following the accident.

This, then, is the background to IRSN’s report. It is part of the French nuclear establishment’s new openness. Even so, the findings of the report are still startling.

Controlled releases from an accident at a French Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) would have limited “radiological consequences,” says the report. This statement conforms to earlier reassurances about the effects from a nuclear accident in France. The costs of such an accident would have severe, but not disastrous, economic effects.

The key words to note here are “controlled releases”.

The authors go on to explain that a severe nuclear accident in France would be a national disaster, but would nevertheless be manageable. France, like all countries, has endured national disasters, such as invasion and occupation during WWII, and has survived as a functioning state.

They define a severe accident as one with a core meltdown, as at Fukushima, but where technicians are capable of controlling the release of radiation.

They estimate severe accident would cost €120 billion or 6% of France’s €2,000 billion GDP.

In the past, that statement alone would have been sufficient to attract the attention of French government administrators with possible censorship in the interests of protecting the public from undue alarm.

What followed was even more remarkable.

They go on to define a “major accident” as an event that would affect only one reactor, but result in a “massive” radioactive release. Such an accident would trigger a major crisis.

The cost to the French economy–from contaminated land alone–would account for 5% of annual GDP, says the report. Further, the authors suggest that such a release would cause the permanent relocation of 100,000 people. To say the least, this relocation would be “extremely difficult to manage” in the words of the report.

The authors go on to warn that such an accident might also have far-reaching and long-term consequences for French industry, such as severely damaging the reputation of French wines and dramatically reducing tourism to France.

In total, a major accident could cost more than €400 billion, or one-fifth of annual GDP. To put this in perspective, the authors note that this cost is comparable to waging a regional war.

The authors conclude that a major accident with massive releases of radioactivity would be “an unmanageable European catastrophe.”

Why this would be so is easily seen from a map of Europe. France is bordered by Belgium and Luxembourg to the north, and Germany, Switzerland, and Italy to the east.

What happens in France is unlikely to stay in France, especially if there is a significant release of radiation from a reactor accident. Worse, numerous French reactors were built on the borders with France’s neighbors.

The most controversial reactor complex is that at Fessenheim on the border with Germany. Fessenheim’s two reactors are only 30 km (20 miles) from Freiburg, Germany to the east and only 50 km (30 miles) from Basel, Switzerland to the south. But it’s not the only reactor complex on the border between France and a neighboring country. The four-reactor complex at Cattenom, France is only 30 km from the capital of Luxembourg and the massive six-reactor complex at Gravelines–one of the largest such complexes in the world–is only 40 km (25 miles) from the border with Belgium.

For comparison, in North America the eight-unit reactor complex at Pickering, Ontario east of Toronto is about 50 km (30 miles) across Lake Ontario from Buffalo, New York.

IRSN’s report is part of a fierce national debate on the energy transition in France introduced by the recently elected government of François Hollande. To the French establishment, the most controversial feature of Hollande’s proposed transition is the reduction in the role of nuclear to 50% of supply by 2025. This entails the closure of 25 reactors. Previously, such an idea was unthinkable in mainstream French political discourse.

While the proposal is modest by international standards–Germany plans to close all its reactors by 2022–it has sent the French nuclear industry into full fulmination mode. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, during his losing campaign against Hollande argued in a fit of political hyperbole that reducing the role of nuclear in France would take the country back to the dark ages. Sarkozy charged that a Hollande government would double the cost of electricity, turn its back on progress, and force a return to the days of candles.

It is into this highly charged atmosphere that the IRSN report was quietly introduced. Nevertheless, the report’s concluding remarks should send chills down the spines of politicians, industry, and policymakers on both sides of France’s political divide. Those in positions of authority, say the authors of the report, must carefully weigh the costs and benefits of nuclear power. The most severe accidents, they argue, “carry huge stakes for the nation and therefore . . . their lower probability may not balance their catastrophic potential.”