A nuclear power station, in background, is the center of the livelihood of Fessenheim. It also happens to sit in a seismic zone. (Photography: Pascal Bastien for The New York Times)
FESSENHEIM, France — The protesters who periodically descend upon this rural village say the aging nuclear power station here, in the woods beyond the cornfields, is a calamity in waiting.
They note that its twin reactors, the country’s oldest, were built 30 feet below the dike of the canal that runs alongside the Rhine River — the water serves as the station’s coolant — but that France’s national utility, which runs the plant, has declined to study the consequences of a break in the embankment.
The plant also sits in a seismic zone — in 1356, an earthquake decimated the Swiss city of Basel, just 30 miles south — and atop one of Europe’s largest aquifers. The concrete containment vessels that surround the reactors at Fessenheim are just a fraction of the thickness of those at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, at least one of which was shown to have cracked in the disaster there.
The front-runner in this year’s presidential race, the Socialist François Hollande, has pledged to close the plant if he is elected in May.
Candidates for France’s presidency differ on the future of nuclear power. (The New York Times)
Given France’s decades of heavy investment in nuclear power, however, and the feelings of national pride and independence that are wrapped up in it, that stance is controversial across the country, and anathema in Fessenheim.
Even in the wake of the meltdown in Japan, as France’s European neighbors have begun to close nuclear plants, this village quite likes its power station. Just a mile or so from the border with Germany — which closed its eight oldest reactors within days of the Fukushima disaster — Fessenheim seems a fitting symbol of France’s attachment to the atom.
The village’s 2,341 inhabitants pay little heed to the warnings of catastrophe from antinuclear types. They are far more interested, they say, in the doctors and nurses who have chosen to work here, the bike lanes and freshly paved roads, the pharmacy, the supermarket, the public pool, media center and athletic complex, as well as the day care center, the nursery school, the elementary and middle schools — all of them subsidized by the millions of euros in taxes that flow from the plant each year.
“Everything depends on the power plant,” said Fabienne Stich, 53, the mayor. Her office overlooks Fessenheim’s main intersection, where new traffic lights and a conspicuously modern electronic information display were installed last year.
The 1,800-megawatt power station, which entered into service in 1977, is the center of the village’s livelihood. To close it, Ms. Stich said, would be “catastrophic.”
France’s 58 nuclear reactors produce nearly 75 percent of the country’s electricity — the largest proportion for any nation in the world — with a total installed capacity second only to that of the United States. The nuclear industry accounts for an estimated 400,000 jobs, and France sells and builds nuclear plants abroad. The country is the world’s largest net exporter of electricity.
Just over the Rhine, Germany’s remaining nine reactors are scheduled for closing by 2022. Switzerland’s government banned the construction of new nuclear plants last May. Spain has had a similar ban in place for years, while in Italy, where the last nuclear plant ceased operation in 1990, voters last year repealed a government plan for new sites.
France, meanwhile, has shut not a single reactor in the wake of the disaster in Japan, and it is building a next-generation plant on the northern coast. In a report released this week, the government auditing agency advised that the country’s reliance on nuclear energy is such that France has little choice but to continue operating all its nuclear stations for at least the coming decade.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has pledged to protect the industry from his presidential opponents. “Our nuclear industry constitutes a force — an economic force, a considerable strategic source for France,” he said in November. “To destroy it would have consequences that would be — I dare to use the word — dramatic.”
With the exception of the Greens, however, who call for the immediate closing of all French plants, Mr. Sarkozy and his opponents in fact largely agree on the nuclear question. Mr. Hollande has suggested only a gradual drawdown of just one-third of the country’s installed capacity, despite his pledge to close the Fessenheim plant.
That promise outraged labor unions and the town. While they are the oldest in France, the reactors are newer than many others across the world and have undergone continual renovation, they note.
“It’s certain that ‘zero risk’ does not exist,” Ms. Stich said. “But nothing would justify this closure.”
Those opposed to nuclear power, however, joined by a number of regional politicians, maintain that the station at Fessenheim constitutes an unreasonable risk. “It’s a veritable sword of Damocles over the heads of the local populace,” said André Hatz, a member of the antinuclear group Stop Fessenheim.
EDF, the French national utility, says it has always taken adequate steps to protect the plant from all reasonable hypothetical dangers. But in January, the French nuclear safety agency ordered it to study the potential consequences of a break in the dike. Last summer, the agency ordered the reinforcement of the containment vessel for one of the reactors.
And while the plant was constructed to withstand a magnitude-6.7 tremor, Mr. Hatz worries that the region may once have seen a more powerful earthquake: Swiss and German experts estimate that the 1356 Basel earthquake was of a magnitude of 6.9. (French experts have estimated it at 6.2.)
“This is what we call the policy of the ostrich,” with its head in the sand, Mr. Hatz said.
As for the lack of worry among local inhabitants, he added, “When you get so much money, your vision is clouded, you don’t see things clearly anymore.”
Of 900 workers at the plant, about 250 are residents of the village, Ms. Stich said; dozens of local and regional companies depend upon it for business.
“It keeps the village alive,” said Angélique Busser, 32, who works at the village bakery, where sandwiches for plant workers account for a major part of business. Ms. Busser, who once worked as a cleaner at the power station, has no concerns about safety there. “It’s all watched incredibly closely, after all,” she said.
“We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the power plant,” said Josiane Ruthmann, 48, who runs the Hôtel Restaurant Ruthmann with her husband, Bernard, a chef. The couple moved to Fessenheim two decades ago after several years in Los Angeles, Washington and Montreal.
“I recognize it, it’s true — we need to get out of nuclear,” said Ms. Ruthmann, citing concerns about radioactive waste. “But they need to find an alternative before they close it down.”
Her husband has little patience for the protesters. “I don’t know how many of them read their books by candlelight or do their laundry in a bucket,” he said, laughing. Still, he said, “It’s good for me when they come to demonstrate.” A businessman at heart, he assures the protesters that he shares their convictions, and business booms at the bar.
Author: Scott Sayare
Source: The New York Times