Insight: France's love affair with nuclear energy cools

Thu Nov 29, 2012 8:55am EST
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By Muriel Boselli

PARIS (Reuters) - For decades, the elite engineers turned out by Paris's grand Corps des Mines academy were faithful followers of the pro-atomic creed that transformed their country into the most nuclear-reliant nation in the world.

But a new generation of Mines graduates is starting to question that policy. It is a change of mindset that could aid efforts by President Francois Hollande to cut reliance on nuclear power from 75 percent to 50 percent of the electricity mix by 2025.

"Noone at the Corps des Mines questions the need for nuclear power in the energy mix, however the younger generation is more concerned about the environment and leaving room for other energy sources," said Francois Bordes, a 40-year old Corps des Mines graduate who advises businesses on energy efficiency.

Bordes is part of a generation of Mines engineers who believe atomic energy has a role to play - but not the dominant one given it by elders who helped build the world's second-largest nuclear program after the United States.

"There is a generation gap between Mines members who had key jobs during the three booming post-war decades and those who started out in the past 15 years," Bordes added.

The Corps des Mines was founded in 1794 to turn France's now-exhausted coal mines to the advantage of Europe's industrial revolution. But after World War Two it won a new raison d'être when Corps des Mines engineer Pierre Guillaumat worked with De Gaulle to create the state-funded CEA nuclear research body.

It became an example of French post-war "dirigisme" - the policy under which the state seeks to direct the economy - determining how nuclear energy was used for civilian and military purposes, with the development of France's atomic bomb.

"A RISKIER WORLD"   Continued...

A general view shows France's oldest Electricite de France (EDF) nuclear power station, outside the eastern French village of Fessenheim, near Colmar, September 5, 2012. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler