He's dashing, he's determined and he's moving like a dervish to get France off its duff and become the leading country in Europe. President Nicolas Sarkozy, who charmed the socks off a joint session of the U.S. Congress not so long ago, recognizes that France must be more than wine, food and fashion. So, he has become the world's foremost salesman of nuclear energy.
While Sarkozy's predecessor, the sly and suave Jacques Chirac, spent his time nurturing la gloire de France and spiting the United States whenever possible, Sarkozy got right down to business after his inauguration last May and is the friendliest Frenchman toward the U.S. since the days of the American Revolution
Nuclear power generation was decided on some years ago by the French as the cleanest, most efficient way to provide electricity. Today, some 80 percent of the country's electric power comes from a sophisticated network of nuclear power plants.
France has become a world leader in nuclear reactors, the design, construction and operation of power plants, and the treatment of waste. In France, all the suppliers in this chain of activities are owned by the state. France's Atomic Energy Commission can help a client country set up the necessary regulatory framework. Areva constructs reactors and transmission networks. Alstom, the French engineering company, is a supplier of nuclear steam turbine generators. Electricite de France, which operates 58 nuclear power stations in France, can train the client country personnel in operations.
This package was a natural for Sarkozy to take on the road, and he has. So far he has signed nuclear cooperation agreements with Algeria, Libya and Morocco. French firms will also oversee the building of two nuclear power stations in China. Prospects he is wooing include Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Egypt and Qatar.
The fever seems to be catching. In mid-January, the government of the United Kingdom approved the building of at least four new nuclear power stations. Italy may even come back to nuclear power. After the Chernobyl power plant meltdown in 1986, Italians banned it in a referendum. Today, Italy is the world's largest net importer of electricity. The other day, the head of a major Italian utility said that Italy -- and all of Europe -- must reduce their dependence on natural gas by using more nuclear power.
And what of the U.S.? Beginning in the late sixties and early seventies, a segment of the environmental movement bent on reducing the output of industrial society, began a campaign to create public fear of nuclear energy. It worked, especially after the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania in 1979. Fear grew and, along with it, Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) local resistance to plant sitings -- anywhere. No new plants have been licensed in 30 years (although some previously licensed were opened in the nineties).
Today, approximately 20 percent of U.S. electricity is produced by nuclear power plants. There are plants operating in 31 states. Ironically, Vermont, the Green Mountain State and one of the "greenest" in the nation, generates 75.1 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
With updated technology and enhanced safety elements, 26 new American facilities are working their way through the permitting process. As for fear, Franklin D. Roosevelt's statement fits here: "We have nothing to fear, but fear itself." If we don't get over it and begin to reduce our dependence on coal, Nicolas Sarkozy will soon be here to sell us some French nuclear plants.
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