Published on Wednesday, August 13, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
France Faces Nuclear Power Crisis
Ecologists Warn of Threat to River Life as Nuclear Stations Get Right to Discharge Warmer Water
by Amelia Gentleman in Paris
Ecologists warned yesterday that the ecosystems in France's rivers were at grave risk after the government's decision to relax environmental regulations governing the operation of nuclear stations in an attempt to avert power cuts caused by the heatwave.
Nuclear plants were granted permission late on Monday to pump their cooling water into nearby rivers at a higher temperature than usual to allow them to continue generating electricity, as temperatures across France continued to hit 40C (104F) for a second week.
"Deaths, pollution, forest-fires, electricity shortages, agricultural damage ... The government is under the grill," the front page of the leftwing daily Libération declared.
The chorus of criticism was so loud that Jean-Pierre Raffarin broke off from his holiday in an Alpine retreat to defend his record. Stressing that there was no place for party politics when the country was facing such exceptional temperatures, he said his administration had been working on preventative measures "for several weeks".
France's health ministry rushed a heat hotline into service yesterday, with operators trained to answer questions on how to deal with the heat, and the health ministry said extra beds would be made available for those affected.
Demand for electricity has soared as the population turns up air conditioning and fridges, but nuclear power stations, which generate around 75% of France's electricity, have been operating at a much reduced capacity and several reactors have stopped working entirely.
In some regions, river water levels have dropped so low that the vital cooling process has become impossible, while elsewhere the water temperatures after the cooling process have exceeded environmental safety levels.
An exceptional exemption from the legal requirements was granted to six nuclear reactors and a number of conventional power stations, allowing them to discharge water one degree hotter than normal.
In another attempt to conserve energy for the nation, France, which is Europe's main electricity exporter, cut its power exports by more than half yesterday.
The environment minister, Roselyne Bachelot, said "sizeable blackouts" were still possible and called on consumers to cut back consumption. Air conditioning at her ministry was switched off as an example.
Michael Luze, a spokesman for Greenpeace France, said the government's decision reflected a willingness to put industrial concerns ahead of the environment, adding that since biodiversity in France's rivers was already suffering as a result of the heatwave it was dangerous to allow a further increase in temperatures.
"This incident serves as a reminder that France made the wrong choice when it opted for nuclear power - a system which no longer functions properly," he said.
Philippe Brousse, a spokesman for the Get out of Nuclear pressure group, said France was suffering from its over reliance on nuclear energy. "This is a scandalous dispensation, which has the sole aim of protecting the nuclear industry, and will cause grave damage to the environment." Further popular alarm about the safety of France's nuclear reactors was triggered last week when Electricité de France began experimenting with a new sprinkler system to cool the concrete walls of a power station which was nearing danger levels.
The precise consequences of the increase in river temperature are not clear. Many varieties of fish are threatened once temperatures reach 28C (82F) because the heat makes the oxygen concentrations in the river drop, which can asphyxiate the fish.
As France experienced its hottest summer since 1947, hospital workers continued to report high numbers of deaths of elderly patients, precipitated by the heat.
Patrick Pelloux, president of the emergency health workers' association, said yesterday he believed as many as 100 people across France had died as a result of the temperatures in the past five days. At the Bois Joli retirement home in a Paris suburb, five people aged 89 to 96 died in the heat at the weekend, despite attempts by nurses to keep them cool.
Paris recorded peak levels of pollution yesterday and forest fires continued to rage in the south of France.
The wine harvest in the Beaujolais region began a month early yesterday, for the first time, because grapes have ripened prematurely in the scorching heat. The earliest that grapes were gathered previously in the region was 1893, when picking began on August 25.
Bus drivers from one union threatened to go on strike today, demanding air conditioning, sunglasses and the right to wear shorts. Free supplies of bottled water and "heat breaks" were granted to workers at a Peugeot factory in the east of France.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003