France's nuclear-energy program is going ahead full steam -- or, to be more precise, full "pressurized water." With a strong lead from President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the French government has given top priority to nuclear development. The latest figures show that despite the large investment required, what looked like a risky and unpopular decision in past years has won majority support and is paying dividends that will increase as oil prices continue to rise.
Since electricity costs now are one-third less with nuclear-power generation than with oil, France's European neighbors are watching enviously.
The West German nuclear program, in particular, has been hard hit by antinuclear protests. Industrialists there complain that their French competitors will gain a significant commercial advantage unless West Germany rejoins the nuclear race.
France, on the other hand, has committed itself since 1974 to an extra 5,000 to 6,000 megawatts a year in nuclear-power generating capacity. So far, 15 reactors have been constructed and brought into operation, with a total output of 8,000 megawatts. They supply 15 percent of France's electricity needs -- or 5 percent of overall energy needs.
Many other reactors still are being built. When the latest of these, Cattenom 1, which is under construction in the country's far northeastern corner , is hooked into the system in March 1985, 47 reactors will be producing 40,000 megawatts. This adds up to 50 percent of France's targeted electricity needs, or 20 percent of the country's overall energy requirements. (Phenix breeder reactors now operating in southeastern France could improve the nation's overall performance still further if they live up to expectations.)
This nuclear program, combined with conservation and hydroelectric power, should reduce France's dependence on imported energy from 75 percent in 1978 to 50 percent by 1985. And within 20 years France expects to produce 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, supplying 33 percent of overall energy needs.
France's current lead and projected nuclear success story are frequent topics for President Giscard d'Estaing.
Faced with some antinuclear protests and more worries about investment costs at a time when money is tight, the President recently told his countrymen that within five years, "the capacity of nuclear power plants will represent the equivalent of 45 million tons of oil a year. It's almost as if the French people had built an oil field with their own hands capable of an annual production of more than half what our British neighbors are getting from the North Sea, and it's a source that will not run dry."
President Giscard d'Estaing's regular appeals to national pride follow a well-established pattern.
In 1953, still resentful over having been excluded from the Manhattan Project , the French government decided France would build its own nuclear weapons. With a significant boost from General de Gaulle, France's nuclear program went ahead steadily. Weapons production was tied closely to a network of power stations, to building a well-centralized and efficient export industry in nuclear equipment and, most recently, to developing retreatment and enrichment facilities. The retreatment plant, unique in Europe, already is operational and provides a means of recycling some of the nuclear waste.
Throughout the years, French governments have stressed the need for independence. France switched in 1969 from its own gas-cooled reactors to the American pressurized-water reactors under license from Westinghouse. This was only after France had developed its own technology and additional uranium fuel-supply lines from the Soviets to operate independently from the United States if necessary.
Today, with an annual investment of $4 billion (16 billion francs) in new nuclear plants, a major damper on public protest is the argument that France's national security depends on a French nuclear-strike capacity, the "force de frappe."
Protests against the nuclear program have not been silenced. The protesters are concerned about plant safety and waste disposal, and what they see as inadequate consultation with the public and a lack of investment in alternative energy sources. Some of the loudest protests have also had a region-vs.-Paris flavor, especially near the proposed Plogoff site in Brittany.
But there has been no slowing of France's nuclear pace. Not only is the program a matter of economics and energy, but it is very clearly painted as one of patriotism as well.
There is open discussion of the risks associated with nuclear plants, and "le recent accident de Harrisburg" is a cliche here.
But nuclear risks, officials explain, should be seen in perspective and "can be considered quite minimal," especially when compared to the risk of an energy crisis far worse than 1973, or the problems of international recession and unemployment.