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The Generational Divide Over Nuclear Power

The scientists at the Cigéo lab in France are not including the risk of deliberate attacks in their research. All of this – the security risks, the enormous uncertainty around waste, the potential for nuclear proliferation – concerns the activists at the House of Resistance. Christine Ro 21 Oct 22

Maud Simon is one of the younger residents of the House of Resistance, a home in the bucolic French commune of Bure. The setting is peaceful, with fewer than 100 residents amidst the fields and cottages.

But Simon and her housemates want disruption. The activists, part of the anti-nuclear network Sortir du nucléaire, purchased this house back in 2006 to mobilize against the nearby Cigéo research laboratory, where scientists are testing deep geological disposal for eventually storing nuclear waste. The activists say there hasn’t been enough information about the risks of this research, and are opposed more generally to the legitimation of nuclear energy given its risks.

The House of Resistance is now home to a fluctuating population of about 5 to 40 people, though this can swell to as many as 400 during a special event.

Simon has been living here for two years. She believes that many young French people favor nuclear energy because of propaganda disseminated by the pro-nuclear lobby, which has spread for instance to YouTube. She’s somewhat unusual, as she grew up in an anti-nuclear family.

A short drive away is the reason that Simon and her fellow protestors chose this site.

To get to the heart of the Cigéo nuclear research laboratory, I’m squeezed with nine other people into an elevator descending 490 meters.

Lasting five minutes, it’s the longest lift ride of my life.

In this peaceful corner of northeast France, scientists are working on a problem that no one, in any country, has solved: what to do permanently with the waste produced by nuclear power generation. In France the total inventory of such waste amounted to 1.7 million m3 at the end of 2020, according to the French National Agency for Radioactive Waste Management (Andra), which operates the Cigéo site.

Our guide’s name at the Cigéo facility is, appropriately enough, Jacques Delay. Dealing with the waste problem involves a high degree of uncertainty and epic timescales (Switzerland, for instance, requires planning for up to 1 million years of containment for any deep geological repository there).

Geologist Delay says that the scientists are expecting technology to continue progressing at its current rate. So certain decisions will be left to future scientists.

Andra hopes to begin operating long-term disposal by 2050, and to have reversible storage until about 2150, in case future scientists come up with a better solution. Then the deep geological disposal would be sealed off completely.

Every 25 metres or so in the Cigéo facility, the construction of the drifts (passageways) changes, to allow for years-long experiments on factors like corrosion and swelling. Walls are lined with concrete of different quality and rigidity levels, for instance. The shape of the drifts fluctuates as well. Scientists here run tests with waste after it’s waited on the surface for 70 years, and cooled to below 90°C.

The scientists at the Cigéo lab in France are not including the risk of deliberate attacks in their research. All of this – the security risks, the enormous uncertainty around waste, the potential for nuclear proliferation – concerns the activists at the House of Resistance.

Nuclear science like that on display at Cigéo is clearly a point of pride in France, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has embraced nuclear energy much more than its neighboring countries. Yves Marignac, who leads the Nuclear and Fossil Energy Unit at the négaWatt Association, notes, “There’s no equivalent worldwide of a country that has developed so much nuclear industry relative to its size.”

The French nuclear fleet is large but not always reliable. Currently, half of France’s currently 56 nuclear reactors are currently out of operation due to corrosion and maintenance issues.

Rainer Baake, the managing director of the Climate Neutrality Foundation in Germany, believes that young people are more pro-nuclear because “they never experienced nuclear fallout.” The former politician says that Germans were very enthusiastic about nuclear energy until the Chernobyl disaster, which led to radioactivity contaminating German gardens. He’s helped shape Germany’s subsequent transition away from nuclear energy, which was meant to have been completed in 2022 but has now been postponed due to the energy supply crisis.

Nuclear is increasingly popular among young people – for instance in Finland, home to the world’s first deep geological repository for nuclear waste – not only because they have less memory of the risks, but also because of widespread concern about climate change. Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear energy is mostly emissions-free; unlike solar and wind energy, it can operate 24/7. And climate anxiety is more pressing than radiophobia for many people who grew up after the Cold War.

The world’s most famous youth climate activist, Greta Thunberg, declared on October 12 that it would be a mistake for Germany to phase out nuclear energy altogether. This set her apart from political units like Germany’s Green Party – which was one of the parties that negotiated for the closure of nuclear plants by the end of 2022 – and long-established environmental organizations like Greenpeace.

Thunberg’s support for nuclear power appears somewhat ambivalent, as she was arguing that nuclear should not be eased off in favor of coal plants, which are set to continue operating in Germany until 2030. After all, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu has argued, air pollution from fossil fuels kills more people than the harms from nuclear energy.

Some young people are all in on nuclear. In North America, “nuclear bros” show that nuclear energy’s popularity is picking up steam among young men.

Nuclear energy is one of the most contentious topics within the environmental movement. To ensure its relevance going forward, the anti-nuclear camp will need to make its core issues – including safety, costs, nuclear proliferation, and the pesky problem of nuclear waste – resonate with more young people like Simon.


October 21, 2022 - Posted by | France, public opinion

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