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The climate will miss you, Fessenheim

On June 30, 2020, Unit 2 of the Fessenheim Nuclear Power Plant in Alsace (eastern France) will be permanently shut down. Unit 1 was closed on 22 February 22nd of this year.

The reactors each generated 900 Megawatts of low-carbon, adjustable controllable electricity since 1977. Why were they condemned?

France, like other signatories to the Paris Agreement of 2015, agreed to reduce its CO2 emissions in order to keep global warming to within 2°C and preferably 1,5° C by 2100 (check). To do so, carbon-emitting fossil fuels must be replaced by non carbon emitting energy sources. Why, then, close a facility that was producing 1800 MWe of clean power?

Were the Fessenheim plants found to be unsafe? No. The Autorité de sûreté nucléaire (ASN) - the authority which alone is competent to judge the safety of a facility - found the nuclear safety performance of the Fessenheim site to be above average for the fleet.

Too old? No. The lifetimes of reactors of a similar design in the USA were extended to 80 years.

Not economically viable? No, the price of nuclear-produced electricity is among the lowest in the EU.

If the decision was not technical nor economic, was it political? Yes.

In 2012, presidential candidate François Hollande, seeking the support of Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV), an anti-nuclear party, promised that if elected he would reduce the share of nuclear power in France to 50%. He was elected, and the commitment was subsequently enshrined in a law - which the next President, Emmanuel Macron, did nothing to change, despite having run on a strong commitment to the fight against climate change.

Elisabeth Borne, Minister for Ecological and Solidarity Transition, told the newspaper Le Monde that France is committed to reducing the share of nuclear power to 50% by 2035, which means closing 14 reactors. “We will close the first reactor at the Fessenheim power plant in February and close the coal-fired plants.” The government thus linked two things that have nothing to do with each other: the closure of coal-fired power plants, whose carbon intensity (greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy) is indeed very high (greater than 800 grams/mWh), and the closure of nuclear reactors, which emit very little greenhouse gas (4 grams/mWh).

Closing down the Fessenheim power plant will lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions estimated at 6 to 10 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year.

The French government plans to shut down 12 more units by 2035.

The president of the Electricity transmission network (RTE) has announced a risk of electricity shortages this winter.

Happily, facts and clear thinking can prevail over myth. The group Extinction Rebellion has played an important role in raising awareness about climate change but is weak on solutions. Extinction Rebellion spokeswoman Zion Lights thought again about the group’s tradition-bound aversion to nuclear power:

“For many years I was skeptical of nuclear power. Surrounded by anti-nuclear activists, I had allowed fear of radiation, nuclear waste and weapons of mass destruction to creep into my subconscious. When a friend sent me a scientific paper on the actual impacts, including the (very small number of) total deaths from radiation at Chernobyl and Fukushima, I realised I had been duped into anti-science sentiment all this time.

“The late physicist David MacKay’s book explains that renewables alone would require unfeasibly massive amounts of storage to keep the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.

“The mindset that you cannot be pro-environment and pro-nuclear at the same time needs challenging. The more research I read, the more I learned about how nuclear power is an essential tool in the battle to address climate change.”

The Americian Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, co-founder of the “Green New Deal” project, also seems to be reconsidering her previous anti-nuclear stand.

“The Green New Deal does leave the door open for nuclear,” she said in a recent debate.



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