Though stalled or slowed elsewhere in the West, nuclear power is booming in France. By 1985, it is scheduled to supply 54 percent of this nation's electric power. Nuclear opposition is not lacking, but it is weak and scattered. Meanwhile, the major political parties, from the Communists to the far right, have endorsed the government's determination to proceed with nuclear development.
Thus, France is in the big leagues of nuclear power, and it got there with scarcely a sign of political dissent, apart from one big and violent demonstration two years ago. I recently toured several of the major facilities, including the newly started-up centerpiece of French nuclear sovereignty, the gigantic gaseous diffusion plant, operated by Eurodif -- a-five-nation consortium -- in the southeast of France. This multibillion-dollar plant, and a string of companion enterprises that make up a complete nuclear "loop" -- from the mining of uranium to its enrichment for fuel to its disposal in glassified form -- provide France with nuclear competence not yet achieved in other Western countries. This is not because the French possess unique technological tricks; rather, it is because, with unswerving single-mindedness, they have worked to build a civilian nuclear-power industry, and they have done it with very few bumps along the way. What accounts for this smooth passage?
The most basic element is that civilian and military nuclear technology share a common base before they diverge for their separate purposes, and from very early on in the post-war period, French policy has aimed for a nuclear military independence. That this had the highest priority in nuclear affairs is evident from the fact that, until the Eurodif plant opened its first production stages recently, the French civilian power program was almost wholly dependent upon the United States for fuel. The military program, however, long ago achieved self-sufficiency, and along with it labor constituency in its many plants.
Addition, political support, both popular and organized, has always been strong in behalf of French nuclear weapons independence, in contrast to Britain's ban-the-bomb movement and West Germany's many and violent protests against anything nuclear -- civilian or military.
Thus, the nuclear business arrived in France initially as a politically accepted military enterprise and then, in parallel with the continuing military program, went off on a course toward a big electric-power program, with 15 plants now in operation and 32 under construction. The initial aims were modest, but in the oil crisis of 1974, the government doubled the 1985 goal to 25 percent of France's electricity requirements, and in response to the current shortage, and raised the 1985 goal to over 50 percent. All this occurred not only without any noticeable dissent, but with all the major political parties taking to TV to express their endorsement; this included the Socialists, who heretofore had been a bit cool to nuclear power, though certainly not opposed to it.
The origin of this support is simple to identify: France is virtually devoid of its own oil and coal resources. Among the industrial powers of Europe, it is most dependent on fuel imports. Polls in the United States repeatedly show that a substantial portion of the public possesses no clear understanding of the geographic origins of what powers their cars and heats their homes. But in France, one gets the impression, the present need to depend on other countries for so essential a commodity as fuel is widely understood and regarded as menacing. For example, a French biologist remarked to me that he is extremely skeptical of the assurances of nuclear safety that the government regularly issues as part of a torrent of pro-nuclear propaganda. But, he added, "What can we do? We have no oil."
The government's campaign in behalf of nuclear power takes many forms -- posters, TV shows, encouraged if not planted new articles, and so forth. Furthermore, there is no official embarrassment about manipulating public opinion. In a recent statement that probably would have got his American counterpart sacked, the information director of the French Atomic Energy Commission said, in part: "The publication of technical data concerning the precautions taken against certain risks . . . frequently has little other effect than to heighten feelings of insecurity, the technically ignorant seldom retaining anything other than the existence of the risks in question . . . There is nothing to be gained for real information of the public by holding controversial debates. . . ."
Inherent in such remarks is the attitude that public opinion is not to be weighed, but formed. Commenting on press coverage of the Three Mile Island accident, the atomic energy information chief complained, "So, here we have 'disaster' without victims; not a soul in the area or in the plant was even hurt, and the environment suffered no pollution." But, he continued, while this spectacular but "harmless" event drew great press coverage, the commonplace hazards of life -- highway accidents, etc. -- went unnoted.
The lesson of Three Mile Island, in the litany of the French nuclear establishment, is that the system works and that, with more confidence than ever, France can proceed with its ambitious nuclear program.