When looking at today’s media, it would almost be a form of masochism to advocate on behalf of the nuclear sector: problems of growing costs, public acceptance, loss of skills, quality defects, lack of competitiveness, difficulty positioning the role of nuclear on an international scale … not one day goes by without another pen-pusher adding fuel to the fire … When it is not the sector itself which lays low instead of replying to the attacks. We continue to hear over and over the decisions by our neighbours to leave nuclear power behind, without ever mentioning that 200 nuclear power plants are planned to be built around the world … But if the nuclear problems are indeed real, the media burden only confirms that which André Gide once said of journalism: “It is that which is less interesting tomorrow than today …”
What is more interesting tomorrow than today are the facts, and they are stubborn. It is the facts, solidly established by scientists and engineers, that will guide the decisions, and not the oratorical jousting or the noisy statements. Global warming is one of the major problems, if not the major problem, of humanity. Except for those seduced by a resurgence of the most worn out Malthusianism or by a Rousseauisme trifle renamed “decay”, the energy needs of humanity are constantly growing. This growth is undeniable for the simple and obvious reason that we have no right to deprive other countries of the development from which we have benefited, nor do we have any legitimacy to ask our fellow citizens to give up the advantages that this progress has allowed us. We are going to have a massive need for energy, and we must produce it, all the while minimising the impact on the environment and in particular the production of greenhouse gases.
Nuclear energy is a source of energy with minimal impact on the greenhouse gases, which is an asset in the fight against global warming. Whatever the view of even the most staunch opposition, one cannot argue the number of TWh produced, which is the only indicator that rationality imposes when it comes to energy policy in light of the potential dangers associated. It is a clean energy, which contrary to what the antinuclear vulgate believe, knows perfectly well how to dismantle its installations: several dozen of them have already been dismantled around the world. This industry has learnt how to safely manage its waste, particularly in light of the considerable time scales. It is an energy that makes very good use of an otherwise useless material (uranium) instead of consuming a raw material (petroleum). Finally, it is a sustainable energy that, with the fast neutron sector, is capable of transforming waste into a resource. Moreover, it is an energy that today produces 75% of France’s electricity; incidentally, it is an energy in which our country has for decades invested and for which has acquired an internationally recognized competence. Despite the years of an almost ideological deindustrialisation in France, a few industrial sectors have, as if by miracle, survived; we must take care that a superficial and unrealistic analysis does not succeed what a greedy ideology has failed to do: to kill one of the industrial flagships of this country. Whatever the objective in terms of the energy mix is, it only makes sense if we build a credible trajectory to get there, both from a technical and economic point of view. It is clear that nuclear energy and renewable energies will have to coexist, although their respective proportions will vary depending upon the country, upon the natural resources, and upon the consumption needs. It is also ridiculous not to see the massive development of solar energy and the reduction of its costs, to ignore the progress in storage and the limitations of conventional solutions, or to imagine replacing all nuclear power plants with photovoltaic panels on the roofs of country houses. Nuclear energy is an intensive use of space and matter simply because the nuclear forces behind it are of much greater intensity than the electromagnetic or gravitational forces that govern photovoltaics and hydraulic power. And no law, no decision-maker, can change this fact! On the other hand, it is a source of energy with a strong capital base, which is in itself a commitment for decades. We will not make an energy policy with slogans, but rather by explaining the objectives and the limitations, by identifying the obstacles that remain, and by building a viable economic model.
Nuclear energy is therefore an energy for the future, and a source of sustainable energy. It is certainly not the only one across the century, but there is no doubt in any rational mind that it will have to play a major role in the fight against global warming and in the provision of abundant and accessible energy for all of humanity. It is the duty of engineers to tell policy-makers what they need to know, which does not necessarily coincide with what they want to hear.
That is the first message I want to make: nuclear power has an important role to play in the fight against global warming. Over many decades, there will be nuclear power plants around the world, and they will also be in France. Although we can hope that France will continue to play its role in the design and construction of the nuclear power plants of the future, we cannot guarantee it: France must want this and France must be aware of its strengths. But it is certain that France will not be able to forego this competence with regard to the production of energy. Nuclear competence will find its place in the energy future of this country and the planet, whether or not we have the intelligence to assume it and, to put it bluntly, one can make a career in the nuclear sector. From a construction point of view, and following decisions that will be taken in the years to come, your bosses will be French, Russian or Chinese; but in terms of production, France will have nuclear power plants simply because it cannot do otherwise, and because the Coué Method does not apply to energy policy. The second message is that the nuclear industry is one that is exciting for an engineer. Exciting because of the variety of skills that it includes: physics, chemistry, heat transfer, structural mechanics, fluid mechanics, neutronics, materials science, computer science, project management, biology. There is not one field of the basic sciences or of the engineering sciences that is not in some way involved in the control of the nuclear energy. From reactor design to the control of their ageing, from safety analysis to radiation protection, from fuel cycle control to waste management, nuclear power is a sector that involves both the skill and imagination of engineers and researchers. Once again, we need to go beyond the chit-chat to understand the need for innovation and the creativity required to give nuclear power its full value. The emergence of renewable energies only adds to this need for renewal: how to ensure the manoeuvrability of a fleet of power generation facilities capable of managing the intrinsic intermittence of renewable energies? More than ever, we will have to develop systemic skills in order to have an efficient and rational energy policy that makes the best use of all resources. The nuclear power industry is an industry of the future. It is an innovative industry. My third message is that it is a citizen engagement. We resort over and over to energy mixes that are perfectly adapted to a country of retirees and bobos. I consider this effervescence of non-existent solutions to be another illustration of contemporary egotism, which sees the individual as an entity being its own end, rather than an individuality that proves its full realisation in its happy integration into a society for the common good. It is more than time to look at the problems for what they are. Provide energy to all our citizens at the same rate for all, ensure network stability even in the least equipped provinces, give our electro-intensive industry a major competitive advantage in the economic war in the form of affordable electricity, ensure the energy independence of our country, manage both resources and waste on timescales that go well beyond the length of legislatures; all these requirements are a public good. For this very reason, they cannot be subjected to the ukases of blind ultraliberalism, nor can they sleep in a passive vision of the role of the state.
The state has a central role to play in the field of nuclear energy because, with regard to the citizens, it is accountable for its commitments in the fight against global warming. It is no longer a question of speaking; we must act and do so in way with the concrete means at our disposal, and not with dreams.
Engaging in the nuclear industry is a civic commitment. The very nature of this industry imposes unfailing integrity and a sense of public good without complacency. It was this ethic of the officer of Parliament that motivated Marcel Boiteux, Georges Besse, André Giraud. But that is how we behaved in the olden days, some might say? No, because today civic engagement means putting our scientific and technical knowledge at the service of a major cause: the transition to decarbonised energy. So instead of having the “shameful nuclear”, you will instead have to assume your choice as a commitment to a design of energy considered as a public good and not as a convenience for individuals.
I am very pleased that the SFEN has taken the initiative in this issue on training and employment. Nowadays, it is a proof of courage and lucidity. The nuclear power sector needs dynamic and creative young people, it needs a passing of the torch between generations, between the one that built the nuclear power plants (what an adventure that was!) and the one that will build tomorrow’s electrical energy mix (what a challenge!). The sector needs young people who know why they wish to join it: because it is an industry of the future in which France remains a reference because it is a multi-faceted industry that requires a variety of skills, and finally because it will contribute in an essential way to the major challenge of our time. Understanding this and putting the anxiety-provoking incantations back in their proper place means distinguishing the underlying, best intentions from the top layer of public speech.
Article originally published in French in SFEN RGN 3 September 2017, translated by Nicholas Morris for the SFEN Young Generation group.