USA | Merkel Panics at Fukushima, French Physicist Yawns: What France Is Reading

Posted on June 14, 2011


USA | BLOOMBERG | Jun 14, 2011

No wonder the word “angst” is understood throughout the world.

Germany’s hasty U-turn on nuclear energy following the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant typifies a Teutonic tendency to succumb to panic and irrational fear, argues former French Education Minister Claude Allegre.

The decision by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition to close all its nuclear reactors by 2022 is “the dumbest they have ever taken,” says Allegre, a physicist by profession, in a new book on the advantages and risks of atomic energy.

The title of this slim volume, cast in the easily digested format of an interview with a journalist, is a simple question: “Faut-Il Avoir Peur du Nucleaire?” (“Should We Fear Nuclear Power?”). Allegre’s answer: It depends on where you live.

“The situation in France is completely different” from that in Japan, he tells reporter Dominique de Montvalon. “We don’t have earthquakes measuring 9 on the Richter scale. Nor do we have tsunamis. Our plants are much more modern, and our technicians are more competent than the Japanese.”

Though a “zero risk” reactor doesn’t exist, the French can take comfort in the country’s atomic record and reporting practices. Unlike Tokyo Electric Power Co., which was slow in disclosing the full extent of the catastrophe, Electricite de France SA faithfully reports even minor incidents at its 58 reactors: They number some 700 a year — none dangerous, the former minister says.

“For a Frenchman, the nuclear risk is infinitely smaller than the one he runs when he boards a plane or uses his car over the weekend,” he says.

Waste vs. Wind

It’s true that the challenge of how to handle nuclear waste hasn’t yet been satisfactorily solved, Allegre says. Yet he voices a preference for that shortcoming over the prospect of ruining the French landscape with 100,000 wind farms or solar panels carpeting an area the size of a large province.

Eventually, he argues, researchers will find an even safer, cleaner, more economical source of energy. He pins his hopes on hydrogen, which he calls the energy of the future. Nuclear fusion, though a splendid idea, will be achieved only in the next century, he says.

Europe,” Allegre concludes, “must not become the continent of fear, of anti-progress and anti-science.”

“Faut-Il Avoir Peur du Nucleaire” is from Plon (161 pages, 9.90 euros).

Burning Planet

Denis Baupin, a deputy mayor of Paris and prominent Green, is all for windmills and solar panels, even if they’re eyesores. That’s a negligible nuisance compared with the dangers posed by traditional energy sources, he says in “La Planete Brule” (“The Planet Is Burning”).

Baupin advocates a “post-carbon, post-nuclear society.” It should be possible, he says, to withdraw from nuclear energy, which provides about 80 percent of France’s electricity, within 20 years.

“La Planete Brule” is his response to the failure of governments at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to craft a new, legally binding treaty to limit global warming. As the title implies, Baupin isn’t content to put France on the right track. Nothing less will do, he says, than an international commitment to a fairer distribution of the world’s energy reserves.

“A utopian proposal?” he asks. “No doubt. Yet weren’t Social Security and the United Nations once utopian ideas?”


Baupin dismisses the electric car, the darling of automobile shows, as a “pseudo-revolution.” According to the European Commission, it will at best conquer 2 percent of the market within the next decade, he says.

He aims much higher. His dreams run to “prosperity without growth” and a society that invests in preserving the environment instead of wasting its wealth on weapons and drugs. The trillions of dollars spent to prop up the financial system have shown that there was enough money to save the banks, he says. Shouldn’t there be enough to save the planet?

Approvingly, Baupin cites a study by Princeton University professors who found that rising income only increases a human’s day-to-day happiness until it reaches about $75,000 a year. Beyond that level, money stops improving the emotional quality of everyday experience, according to the academics, who included behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel laureate.

When it comes to balancing the economy with ecology, the Greens have yet to present a model that convinces doubting Thomases who want more than a virtuous, frugal, strictly regulated life, Baupin concedes. I’m not sure his book will win many converts.

“La Planete Brule” is from Hoebeke (338 pages, 19.50 euros).

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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