You began your career at the CEA and you participated in the early development of nuclear. What happened?
French Scientist Bernard Laponche: The reactor produces the means of its own destruction.
French physicist Bernard Laponche speaks about France's nuclear obstinacy, EPR, ITER, and the Energy Transition
Since the Fukushima Dai-ichi catastrophe put the anti-nuclear movement back into public consciousness there has been a surfeit of research and opinionating about nuclear energy and nuclear disarmament. It has become difficult to think of anything original to add to the discourse. But I continue here to add to similar previous posts that highlight voices of physicists and physicians, some of them former nuclear industry insiders, who have spoken out about the way nuclear technologies, both civilian and military, have recklessly endangered life on earth.
These are people who could have had more comfortable and lucrative careers by looking away and working on other matters, but they believed that their privileged position and their knowledge gave them a responsibility to speak out.
The post that follows is a translation that can inform the English-reading world about an insider of the French nuclear industry, Bernard Laponche, who has worked tirelessly for decades to raise the alarm about France's blind commitment to nuclear energy. Every nuclearized country seems to have a few heroes like Monsieur Laponche. They all have a similar message, but they all deserve to be recognized and listened to by a global audience.
In this interview from 2011, he made some predictions which have come true, and others that may be only half right. He said France would pay dearly for the mistake of building the EPR reactor, and on this point he was right on the mark. The costly delays, cancelled projects, disastrous construction flaws, and the resulting bankruptcy of Areva all show that he was right. However, when he said we could count on the Socialist Party to support an enlightened energy transition, he was overly optimistic. The past four years have shown that the attempt to scale back nuclear energy and develop renewables has been very timid so far.
Read on to see what else this French energy expert had to say in June 2011…
Vincent Remy, "Bernard Laponche : "There is a strong possibility of a major nuclear accident in Europe," Telerama.fr. Published June 18, 2011, updated August 11, 2014.
Translation of "Bernard Laponche : "Il y a une forte probabilité d'un accident nucléaire majeur en Europe"
Bernard Laponche, nuclear physicist, graduate of the Ecole polytechnique, is absolutely certain: France is in error. With le nucléaire, France obstinately privileges a form of energy that is not only dangerous but also obsolete. Meanwhile, other solutions exist, ones which Germany has already started to develop for its energy transition.
He is theirs. He was one of theirs. Bernard Laponche worked at the heart of the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique, where plans for the first French nuclear power plants were taking shape. He was shocked when he noticed the working conditions of the rank and file at la Hague [France's major nuclear fuel processing facility]. He became aware of the danger of the atom and judged it morally unacceptable. From the 1908s, he was active within the CFDT [the trade union Confédération française démocratique du travail], advocating for research in energy consumption and the development of renewable energy sources. He was vindicated in the following decades. But he says France, the only country in the world to have chosen the all-nuclear option, persisted in its errors and blinded itself. It stuck with an energy form of the past, one in which innovation is impossible. Nuclear represents not only a terrifying threat, for us and the generations that will follow, but it also condemns the country to missing the boat on the indispensable energy revolution.
Nuclear energy is always presented as a very sophisticated technology. You say that it is just a matter of it being "the most dangerous way to boil water." Is this view controversial?
Not really… A nuclear reactor is just a heater. It produces heat. But whereas the heat in thermal power stations comes from the combustion of coal or gas, in a nuclear power plant it comes from splitting uranium atoms. This heat is used to produce steam. The steam spins a turbine which produces electricity. So nuclear energy is not a miraculous way of creating electricity from the reactor. It's not as if electricity just arises spontaneously from the reactor.
Why has this image of sophistication been promoted?
The promoters of nuclear don't want to emphasize the primary source, which is uranium. Doing so would associate it with the origins of nuclear energy which were military and strategic applications. Moreover, when they let people think that electricity is produced directly, they give the impression that there is something magical about it, and this makes it seem three times more powerful than it really is. This is because two thirds of the heat is lost. This heat is lost in cooling the reactors and transferring the heat to rivers and oceans.
Tell us about the fuel.
It is thin rods of uranium, lightly enriched with the isotope U235, in the case of French reactors. Fission was recently discovered in 1938. A neutron strikes a uranium nucleus, which explodes, releasing fragments, energy, and neutrons. These neutrons strike other uranium nuclei and a chain reaction starts. These multiplying fissions produce heat. The fission fragments are also new radioactive products which emit alpha, beta and gamma radiation. So inside a reactor you produce heat, which is the benefit, and also radioactive substances, notably plutonium—the most dangerous element you can imagine that existed previously in nature only in trace amounts. We should have asked in the beginning, "Is this way of boiling water really acceptable?"
But this chain reaction can be stopped at any time, can't it?
During normal functioning they lower the control rods into the core of the reactor. These are made of material that absorbs neutrons, so the reaction stops. But they have to continue to cool the reactors after this because the radioactive materials continue to produce heat. So by its very nature this technology involves multiple risks. If the control rod insertion fails, there is a runaway chain reaction, which can cause a nuclear explosion. If there is a crack in the cooling circuit, then there is a loss of cooling, and the extreme heat destroys the fuel rod lining. Radioactive substances escape and hydrogen gas accumulates, which can explode. Right from the start it involves the creation of large quantities of radioactive materials. Catastrophe is intrinsic in the technology. The reactor produces the means of its own destruction.
But there are multiple safety systems...
No matter how much you multiply the safety systems, there are still situations in which they would not suffice. A case in point is Chernobyl. There was a fault in the reactor design and an error in operation. In Fukushima, the flooding was caused by the tsunami. In Blayais, in Geronde, France, the power plant was flooded and we came very close to a major accident. No one had imagined the force of the storm in 1999. There have been accidents that didn't involve tsunamis or flooding, like at Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979. We could also imagine in many countries an armed conflict, or sabotage. To start with nuclear energy involves the production of large quantities of radioactive materials. The reactor produces the means of its own destruction.
Have there been any innovations in nuclear technology?
There have been none since the debut of nuclear science in the 1940s and 1950s. The French reactors are really just larger versions of what was on nuclear-powered American submarines in the 1950s. Reactors, and uranium enrichment and reprocessing were all developed during WWII. They just increased the power and added safety features. But because the systems have become more complex, they don't always guarantee safety.
It's hard to believe there hasn't been any major innovation…
Yes, but there was actually the fast breeder reactor! With Superphénix, they changed the concept of the reactor. Fortunately, it was shut down in 1998 because it was based on the use of plutonium. How could they have imagined making such a dangerous material the basis for a reactor technology to be exported all over the world?
Nicolas Sarkozy declared that if we refuse nuclear, we'll have to go back to using candles. What do you think about this statement?
It's annoying to hear leaders who understand nothing continue to say whatever they please. But Nicolas Sarkozy is actually right. One day, and it may come this summer even, French people will need to light their homes with candles because we are the only country that has chosen to produce 80% of its electricity from a single source, nuclear, and even a single type of reactor, the pressurized water reactor. If we were forced to stop all these reactors, we would indeed have to use candles. The blackout wouldn't have to be caused by a catastrophe. It could just be small generic problem, a drought, or a heat wave. There would be no water to cool the reactors. In contrast, if we decided to get out of nuclear in twenty years, we could advance our innovations in energy production and thus avoid having to use candles.
The proponents of nuclear say that in France, with our new EPR reactor, now under construction in Flamanville, risk has been reduced to zero…
Every country promises that its reactors are better than others. Before Fukushima the Japanese said the same thing as the French. We've already seen three reactors destroyed (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and three in Fukushima), out of 450 that exist in the world, which caused hundreds of square kilometers to become uninhabitable. According to experts, the theoretical probability of accidents had been calculated to be one in 100,000 "reactor-years" [one reactor-year means one reactor functioning for one year], and one in a million for an accident as bad as Chernobyl. What actually happened shows that the odds are 300 times higher than what was calculated by the experts. So there is a high possibility of a major nuclear accident in Europe.
Could a major innovation make you change your mind?
I don't see a solution in the present circumstances, not in engineering nor in scientific knowledge. I don't say that in the future some genius won't find a new, clever way to exploit the energy locked up in the nucleus—in a way that doesn't produce mountains of radioactive waste—but for the moment, there isn't anything conceivable.
Why are you opposed to ITER, the center in Cadarache for developing fusion energy, under the guidance of the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)?
Fusion is the opposite of fission. It's the combining of two nuclei, two isotopes of hydrogen, deuterium (a proton and an neutron) and tritium (a proton and two neutrons). This fusion releases energy, but we have to find a way to fuse these two nuclei. In the sun they fuse due to the force of gravity. On earth, we can use an atomic bomb. That works quite well. The fission explosion induces the fusion of nuclei, which produces a much stronger second explosion. That's the hydrogen bomb, or the H bomb. To get fusion without a bomb, we have to create colossal magnetic fields in order to attain a temperature of a hundred million degrees. ITER began from a Soviet project, and it's a laboratory experiment of pharaonic scale. Very powerful neutrons bombard the steel walls of a reactor. These materials become radioactive and they have to be replaced very often. I'm not a fusion specialist, but I recall that our two recent physics Nobel Prize winners in France, Pierre-Gilles de Gennes and Georges Charpak, have said that ITER was not a good idea. They favored doing fundamental research before building this enormous facility. No one followed their advice, and our politicians leaned on arguments that were pure public relations—we're making the energy of the sun—to ensure that ITER would be built in France.
Because France wants to be the nuclear leader of the world. The Japanese wanted ITER, but their Nobel Prize physicist, Masatoshi Koshiba, said, "No way," because of the seismic risk. I think that the project will be halted because its price is rising at an exceptional rate. And no one ever asked, "What if it doesn't work? What would a fusion reactor be like?" The group negaWatt has asked, "Why would we want to recreate the energy of the sun when it already lands on us in such large quantities?"
How do you respond to those who think that because of global warming, and the necessity of reducing CO2 emissions, we have to develop more nuclear energy?
First of all, we can't make the reduction of CO2 emissions the only criteria in our choices for how we make electricity. Is it necessary to accept that, for the sake of the climate, every five or ten years we'll have an accident like Fukushima somewhere in the world? In addition, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has shown that if we want to meet our CO2 reduction targets, half of the effort needs to be in energy efficiency. For the other half, resort to renewables is essential. Nuclear represents only 6%. So we have to put the advantage of nuclear in this perspective.
You began your career at the CEA and you participated in the early development of nuclear. What happened?
I even wrote a thesis on plutonium, and I never questioned anything. Everything is very compartmentalized at the CEA. I made calculations for the EDF3 plant in Chinon, and I had no idea about the risks of accidents or the problem of the waste. I worked with brilliant people. Then I got active in the CFDT (trade union), after 1968, and one of the issues was the conditions of the workers at la Hague. I realized that I, as an engineer in my office, knew nothing about their working conditions. And I didn't know that the people of la Hague had no idea what a nuclear reactor was. So in 1975, we collectively wrote a best-seller called L'Electronucléaire en France, and the head of the CEA at the time recognized it for its quality. To write that book, I worked for six months on American documents because in France we had nothing. The CFDT then took a position against the nuclear program. I started working on alternatives to nuclear, and, in 1982, I joined the l'Agence française pour la maîtrise de l'énergie (ADEME).
That was thirty years ago. What were you interested in then?
The same things as now: energy efficiency, renewable energy! The principles of photovoltaics, and thus solar panels, had already been worked out. Today we only speak about electricity, but what we should be installing everywhere is solar water heaters. Nothing could be simpler: a liquid heat conductor circulates through tubes under glass, and you get 60C water. Germany, getting less sunshine than France, has ten times as many solar water heaters. In Midi (south of France) there are almost none.
That doesn't require much innovation…
Innovation is about, above all else, lower costs. Wind power has already been proven competitive with nuclear. In photovoltaics, Germany anticipates a cost decrease of 5% every year. There is a lot of research to be done on marine energy, currents, waves, and the heat of the earth called geothermic energy. Renewable energy sources, the collective term for all these, are each very different, and they could cover, little by little, all energy needs. Germany estimates they'll cover 80% of energy needs by 2050. This is possible, as long as we continue to increase energy efficiency.
We produce electricity from nuclear at a modest price, but we don't account for the cost of dismantling and long-term management of the radioactive waste. Has this penalized renewable energies?
Yes, and since we've built too many nuclear power plants, there is always pressure to consume more electricity, particularly for its most idiotic use—heating, for which France is the champion in Europe. We build mediocre housing, we install radiators, which cost nothing, and this creates a global electric power problem: in Europe one half of the difference between average consumption and the winter peak consumption is caused by France. As a result, in the winter we have to buy electricity from Germany, which produces the needed electricity from carbon fuels. Aside from heating, the French consume 25% more electricity than Germans. In addition to having homes that are better insulated, Germans also have more efficient appliances, and they consume more carefully because electricity is a bit more expensive there.
What are the big energy innovations that will come next?
Smart grids, intelligent networks! Thanks to computing, we can optimize the production and distribution of electricity. At the scale of a village or a region, we can coordinate consumption. For example, we could see to it that refrigerators would not all start at the same time. Nuclear advocates always say that renewable energies fluctuate. The wind doesn't always blow. The sun doesn't always shine. They say that if we don't have nuclear, we'll need millions of wind turbines, but this is not the case when we think in terms of combinations. Germany is studying networks that combine biomass, hydro, wind and solar. And they fit with demand: at night demand is low, so they use wind energy to pump water to a reservoir behind a dam which will produce energy during the day. This is the big innovation of the energy transition, and it is the opposite of a centralized system like nuclear. So what does the future look like? A territory with intelligent meters which make a perfect junction between consumption and local production. Small is beautiful. Germans are succeeding with this transition right now because they made the decision to go this route. That's the key: we have to make the decision. That requires a real awareness of the situation.
How do you explain the lack of awareness in France?
On one part it is the arrogance of the Corps des ingénieurs des Mines, on the other it is the servility of politics. A small techno-bureaucracy has decided energy policy for a long time. They made the decisions on how to exploit coal, then oil, and then nuclear. They always went to extremes and then imposed on politics their single-minded vision for electricity generation.
Did that happen because of the centralization of power?
Completely! In the 1970s, a Swedish researcher did research that found nuclear was adopted in some countries and not in others. It concluded that an authoritarian, centralized politico-administrative structure enabled the development of nuclear energy. This was the case in the USSR and France where nuclear was built for false reasons such as energy independence and national prestige and power. A link was maintained between civilian and military applications. The CEA had a military branch, and Areva supplies plutonium to the army. This military-state-industrial complex now considers [German chancellor] Angela Merkel to be crazy. Instead of noticing that the Germans are doing things differently and we should look at their approach seriously, we just decide that they must be fools. Our leaders chant that our reactors are the safest, that nuclear is the future, and we are going to sell our technology everywhere. This is the argument they have always made, but France has barely sold nine reactors in the last fifty years, aside from the two that are under construction in China. This is not the way it was supposed to be. In ten years, Germany has created 400,000 jobs in renewable energy.
Aside from environmentalists, no one, not even the Left, wants to renounce nuclear…
Things are evolving fast. Fukushima has shaken up some of the more reasonable nuclear advocates. I hope the German decision [to quickly phase out nuclear power] will have an influence, not on our actual leaders, but on industry and on financing. They should be saying to themselves: can we keep investing in such a thing? There used to be an Areva-Siemens alliance backing EPR reactors, but Siemens got out years ago. We could always carry on saying the Germans are wrong, but it is difficult to look at the performance of their industries over recent decades and say that they are falling behind.
Can environmentalists depend on the Socialist Party?
Definitely. Already, in 2000, everything was ready for the EPR, but Dominique Voynet, Minister of the Environment, said to Lionel Jospin, "If you go ahead with the EPR, I'll resign." It was the only time she put her resignation up as a bargaining chip, and the EPR was not advanced at the time. I worked with her as an advisor on these issues, and I produced 350 reports for her. There was a daily struggle between the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Industry, which made a mockery of safety. Unfortunately, the EPR was relaunched when Chirac came to power in 2002. And it is going to cost us very dearly. For half a century we have wasted energy, under whatever pretense. It is now urgent that we become a civilization that uses energy in a way that doesn't endanger life.
Vincent Remy, "Bernard Laponche : "There is a strong possibility of a major nuclear accident in Europe," Telerama.fr. Published June 18, 2011, updated August 11, 2014
Translation of "Bernard Laponche : "Il y a une forte probabilité d'un accident nucléaire majeur en Europe"__________