Despite the apocalyptic image that the atom acquired from its military use, it has also enjoyed huge popular and political support in France, which became a nuclear society par excellence. How did we get here?
Due to its centralized mode of production and distribution, as well as the State’s involvement in making it possible, civilian nuclear energy shapes the society that uses it. In France, the evolution of the energy model towards nuclear power dates back to the Messmer Plan. Following the 1973 oil crisis, the spike in oil prices strongly impacted the competitiveness of French industries. The luxury of abundant, low-cost energy and the swell in revenues that the construction and maintenance of the country’s fleet of nuclear power plants provided led France’s industrial elite to advocate for this mode of energy production. A very broad consensus was established that was based on a convergence of interests and expectations among the industrial elite and French political class, for whom the nuclear energy industry signified a renewal of the country’s industrial might and a large source of employment to satisfy a growing electorate.
Reprocessing facility, La Hague, Cotentin, 2016, Fondation de l’Ecologie Politique.
For certain sectors, such as construction, the government program was a godsend, because it created massive construction projects in the short, medium, and long term whose contracts ran into the billions of French francs. At the local level, most elected officials and voters advocated for nuclear energy by pointing to its immediate economic returns.
Nuclear power plants represent an important source of income for the towns that host them because of the legal compensation provided. Local residents point to the creation of thousands of reserved jobs. The consensus thus extended to the populations most affected by the risks of nuclear energy, as for example in the area surrounding the reprocessing facility in La Hague, in the Cotentin.
The compensation of local governments through the financing of large athletics and cultural facilities and the image of “progress” created through the availability of abundant, cheap electricity to consumers played an important role in this process.
These steps formed part of EDF’s three-pronged communications policy of publicity, secrecy, and transparency. By appropriating the dual logic of the National Council of the Resistance’s program to make electricity accessible to the greatest number of people and to fight energy precariousness, EDF portrayed itself as a responsible, modern, and humanist company. Its advertising campaigns all relied on this brand image to bolster the public’s approval of civilian nuclear power.
A legal opacity surrounded nuclear power, which was classified as an “industrial secret” or as an issue of “national security.” This allowed operators to omit the program’s inconveniences and maintain secrecy around accidents at sites in operation. Operators hid the fusion at the Saint Laurent des Eaux reactor in 1980, leaks of radioactive materials into the Saint Hélène river in 1991, and the flooding and breakdown at Blaye in 1999 before these events were noted by independent laboratories and then finally made public by the media.
“The technocratic logic of all this was that this dual action of an unprecedented social development and control were exercised in the name of studies and practice over which EDF retained a near monopoly. The management of this establishment showed itself to be capable of mobilizing a significant amount of scientific and technological resources – which it was practically the only one to be able to bring together – to develop projects that it considered to be in the collective, national interest, and which reinforced its own power and growth.
In this sense, EDF brought within its area of competence, energy, many aspects of social life, the economy, and culture that directly and indirectly affected modes of industrial production, the means of organizing work, consumer habits, and lifestyles by receiving investments that could be devoted to other activities in order to ensure the country’s energy independence, etc.”
Extract from the book :
Le modèle EDF. Un essai de sociologie des organisations
Michel Wieviorka, Sylvaine Trihn, La découverte, 1989.
Operators also developed “nuclear tourism,” especially among students. Every year, several tens of thousands of people visit these power plants, whose safety is portrayed to the general public as a source of national pride.
Between their proclaimed transparency and policy of concealment, EDF managed its communications policy carefully.
At the same time, French energy habits began to focus on electricity consumption. The growth in the use of electrical energy provided opportunities for the energy produced by nuclear reactors, the seeming advantage of which was that people’s utility bills did not go up.
Drawing of CHERNOBYL: YEAR 1 by PEZZOLI, appearing in the magazine Ecologie–Hebdo, the Jean–Luc and Sylvie BURGUNDER Fund, Fondation de l’Écologie Politique.
Bit by bit, electricity produced in France and available to everyone created the image that civilian nuclear power was an essential component of modernity. Seduced by a lifestyle where energy opulence reigned supreme, the general public came to place its full trust in nuclear power. The strength of this public image was summed up by the slogan “nuclear or candles.”
This communications strategy also contributed to the marginalization of critics of the development of France’s nuclear program. Nuclear lobbies were quick to caricaturize difference sin opinion merely as a confrontation between progressives and advocates for a return to candlelight, between the confident and the “party poopers,” or between the rational (homo oeconomicus) and the unrealistic (homo ecologicus).
According to the sociologist Sezin Topçu, the main purpose of stigmatizing opponents is their political illegitimation. Their marginalization thus consolidated and reinforced a discourse of reason and responsibility waged by the central government and the experts involved in developing the nuclear program.
The nuclear society model is by definition a centralized, technocratic one. Scientific expertise and the technology behind nuclear energy, used for both military and civilian purposes, were built thanks to the convergence of the interests of the major players and of the political class. First at the Manhattan Project, and then the CEA, an elite was formed composed of scientists, engineers, and administrators who all shared a common culture.
In France, the Corps des Mines has traditionally directed energy policy within the public and private sector. A very small number of individuals who all went to the same elite school thus acquired the greatest responsibilities in the field of nuclear power.
The homogeneity of the education received by this executive elite influenced how it considered criticism. Whether such criticism came from within or without, the Corps des Mines most often ignored and at times even blocked voices that opposed its model, regardless of their legitimacy.
Such a strong collusion between, on the one hand, the upper echelons of government responsible for directing and managing such a complex matter and industrialists in the relevant sectors on the other in fact merited questioning. It recalls the influence of the military-industrial complex in the United States over decisions regarding dissuasion and foreign policy.
The composition of and decisions by the Commission for the Production of Electricity from Nuclear Power, also known as the Commission Péon, are very revealing both in terms of the way that energy policy has been conducted in France, and the absence of any debate surrounding it. This flagrant lack of criticism is typical of the position enjoyed by the nuclear model in parliamentary debate.
Decision-making processes are largely guided by the executive, which sometimes uses bypassing or imposing strategies, some more subtle than others. The implementation of the Messmer Plan was ratified with a decree and debated in the National Assembly without, however, yielding any specific legislative result.
Authorizations to build 13 new power plants, a process simplified by the decree starting in 1973, were granted without waiting for the declaration of public utility (also known as a “DUP”) at the end of a public inquiry, thereby depriving the Council of State of its right to object. Moreover, until 1978, DUPs were evaluated without commissioning any environmental impact reports, as the decree applying the 1976 law on the protection of nature and the environment was delayed. This allowed various construction projects to be initiated in haste.
Opponents used legal means to contest the legitimacy of EDF’s construction projects. EDF’s legal resources were nevertheless disproportionately larger and the technical nature of the cases discouraged the courts, which declared their own lack of jurisdiction. Most claims were thus rejected or otherwise dismissed. In the name of a general interest that, 40 years on, remains hard to discern, the “all nuclear” choice was reduced to a simple technical decision made by a small number of technocrats. Guided by the executive, this issue was not subject to political debate.
Except for a few environmentalist ministers and outlying parliamentary deputies, the political class never questioned this choice and merely provided its consent. This mechanism was recently reactivated. After being refused as part of the law on energy transition and green energy growth, the amendment concerning the planned “Cigéo” underground radioactive materials storage site in Bure (Meuse) was approved using Article 49(3) as part of the law on growth, business, and equality of economic opportunities, which was then suppressed by the Constitutional Council.
Chronologie du débat parlementaire sur le nucléaire
Such institutional workings at times denote a veritable denial of reality enforced by a powerful control mechanism. Through its history, its symbols, and its economic results, the nuclear society was able to create a form of “intellectual orthodoxy” surrounding the civilian use of nuclear energy.
In such a context, how does one respect the conditions for the objective quest of the public interest that is supposed to guide energy policy over the long term?
In 1977, the Schloesing Report, which was drafted by the Finance Commission of the National Assembly, questioned the economic soundness of French nuclear-electric power and the relevance of an energy policy that relied predominantly on one energy source whose production prices were not stabilized. This text did not circulate enough to stimulate any public debate, yet already 40 years ago its analyses described the incoherencies of a policy that have since been brought to light.
In fact, only recently, 50 years after the construction of the first plants, did France endow itself with a true check and balance when it created the Nuclear Security Agency (ASN) with the June 13, 2006 law on nuclear transparency and security. In this context, citizens and civil society in general remain largely deprived of the ability to consider these matters, as was shown by the results of the public hearings on the Flamanville EPR nuclear power plant and on the management of nuclear waste in the early 2000s.
The development of mechanisms for debate alongside a greater transparency of information are essential tools for an inclusive consideration of the future of French nuclear energy.
Ignored by the Grenelle Environmental Round Table in 2007 and sidelined – with great difficulty and with the greatest incoherence – from the national debate on energy transition in 2013, the question of nuclear energy remains today an urgent issue that we need to address.