Anti-nuclear antidote20 September 2004
The development of a civil nuclear programme in France is often seen as a success story and the acceptance of this programme is often envied by the other nuclear countries. Nevertheless, this success story has known ups and downs and the relationship between public opinion and nuclear actors is complex and, above all, changeable. By Fanny Bazile
During the 1970s the building of an ambitious nuclear programme in France was well accepted by all except certain far-leftist groups and populist media groups. The main lever in favour of this programme was the need for energy independence in the context of the first oil crisis, but also the high legitimacy of science and technology, great public confidence in the institutions, and strong local and national communication from Electricité de France and the government, based on national technological skills and pride (notably the phrase: ‘In France we have no oil but we have ideas’).
In the 1980s and moreover the 1990s, the confidence towards science and technology decreased and many facts, events and social trends led to the decline of nuclear acceptance.
Of course one can evoke the Chernobyl accident, which led in France to a loss of credibility of the nuclear safety and health authorities, but also the rise of left-oriented ecological trends combined with the socialist-green government coalition which led to the shutdown of Superphénix in 1998. At that time there was also a generally unhelpful atmosphere of health scandals such as contaminated blood and BSE (‘mad cow disease’).
Looking at the end of the 1990s, one can observe a relative deficit of confidence in the nuclear industry, but the most significant fact is that a majority of people were hesitant or ambivalent: about 20% of people claimed to be opposed to the use of nuclear power, about 20 to 25% claimed to be in favour and about 50 to 60% claimed to be hesitant. In addition, a poll carried out in 2003 for the Ministry of Industry revealed that a large majority of people (about 70%) claim to be ‘poorly informed’ on energy topics, while nuclear opponents denounce a lack of transparency in the French energy policy.
During these years, evolution of French institutions in the civil nuclear sector tended to take into account emerging social trends, especially the demand for more independence of regulators from the operators, and for more transparency in the political and technical decision process:
- 1982: the creation of the Local Committees of Information (CLIs) close to nuclear sites.
- 1987: the creation of the Higher Council of Nuclear Safety and Information (CSSIN) independent from operators and government, to improve public information on nuclear safety.
- 1991: the Bataille Act comes into effect to manage decisions on long-lived high-level radioactive waste.
- 1995: the creation of the National Commission for Public Debate.
- 2002: the Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety gains independence from the Atomic Energy Commission.
- During all these changes, the visibility of the nuclear safety authority remained high in the traditional media and on the Internet.
One of the most innovative actions in the field of public information has been the Ministry of Industry’s organisation of the National Debate on Energies in 2003. The purpose was to prepare a ‘blueprint law on energies’ which would determine French energy policy for the next 30 years. This would be proposed by the French government and discussed by the parliament in 2004.
This National Debate on Energies tended to address the demand for a more ‘participative’ democracy and was guided by the hypothesis that a better understanding of the main constraints and drivers of an energy policy could lead to a better acceptance of the choices available to government and parliament. It is important to note that the purpose was not to replace the political debate planned for parliament but only to prepare the public to understand the stakes of the political decisions and to give a new legitimacy to the main energy choices, including the nuclear programme but also other large projects and measures in favour of energy conservation.
Concerning nuclear public acceptance, the presupposition was that it would be easier to accept this energy if a debate focused on the question of ‘for or against nuclear power?’ was avoided and replaced by a general analysis on the advantages and drawbacks of each energy generation technology in the French, European and worldwide current and future contexts.
The international context of energy was stressed: the balance of supply and demand in each sector; the question of security of supply; environmental constraints – greenhouse effect and climate change; limited natural resources in oil and gas; the economic and geopolitical situation – deregulation, globalisation, emergence of the European Union.
In this respect, the formalism of the debate was very elaborate and rules were defined to allow all opinions to be expressed. For example, an advisory committee was set up to guarantee the fairness of the whole process, and this process was also driven by a group of energy sector representatives.
The pluralism of the debate was carried out by government invitation to all non-governmental organisations (NGOs), local communities, technical or professional organisations and academic and scientific societies. The aim was to set up debates open to everybody and provide the opportunity for people to express different standpoints on the country’s energy choices.
More than 250 ‘partner initiatives’ were organised in France by academic and scientific societies, NGOs and local communities: everybody could observe the real pluralism of each debate. The participation in these debates was very uneven – the participants were in their major part people who were already concerned by the topic.
At the same time, the Ministry of Industry set up six national symposia in Paris and various provinces. Each day-long symposium was a gathering of different energy experts, professionals and decisions makers but was open to everybody.
One quarter of people stated that their opinion had changed over the last year. Two-thirds of these now support nuclear energy
The scope of national symposia tended to deal with the whole levers of an energetical policy, each symposium treating one topic:
- What are the new challenges for the energy policy?
- Energy and everyday life: how to improve efficiency?
- Energy, companies and transport: how to combine competitivity and responsibility?
- Coal, gas, oil: strengths and weaknesses, until when?
- Renewable energies: alternative or complementary?
- Nuclear power: energy of the future or wrong decision?
- And a concluding symposium: towards a sustainable energy policy.
To carry on the teaching dynamic, during all the processes of the national debate (from March to July 2003), the Ministry of Industry set up a website giving basic information on energy, the agenda of symposia and partner initiatives, symposia reports and a forum. A leaflet with basic data and explanations was delivered in schools and the subways of large towns.
The opponents of nuclear energy gathered under the NGO banner, Sortir du nucléaire (‘out of nuclear power’), and adopted contradictory attitudes: at first, they accepted to participate in the debates. Then they complained to the organising committee of a ‘lack of pluralism’ and decided to boycott the debate. At the same time, they tried to set up a ‘counter-debate’. This was unsuccessful: members of the public not already familiar with the organisation did not understand why they did not participate in the official debate and, as a result, very few people attended Sortir du nucléaire’s events.
This fact gives the opportunity to stress a very significant trend of French public opinion in nuclear matters (and in other technical matters of the same kind). People are very sceptical towards the institutions, but also towards the political organisations; and while they think that it is useful to have ‘counter’-lobbies, they also think that the truth is somewhere between the pro and the anti, or something more complex than these standpoints. So, when they understand the complexity of a topic, they accept to delegate a part of their judgment.
A LEARNING EXPERIENCE?
Many political leaders, especially opponents to the current majority, have stressed its limits:
- The media did not relay this process as an event, which was a ‘cold’ topic compared to the other news of spring 2003. The war in Iraq occupied the international stage while social questions such as the retirement reforms were prominent in French news.
- Few people participated in the symposia and the majority of participants were people with a particular concern in the power industry.
- The main directions of the future blueprint law were known before the debate and the opinions expressed during the debate had no chance to influence them.
But on the other hand one can observe that the experts’ and government’s stances have had a great impact on the wider public’s understanding and perception of energy matters, and particularly in nuclear acceptance. New issues were discussed and acquired visibility among the general public: greenhouse effect problems; the balance of supply and demand; the requirements for a sustainable energy policy. Arguments were deeply reviewed and the advantages and limits of each energy source were discussed as much as the definition of a sustainable energy mix.
Polls carried out before and after the debate show that the attitude towards nuclear energy changed in 2003 as can be seen in the tables above:
- 28% of the French population claim to be favourable to nuclear power, versus 20% in 2002.
- 17% claim to be against nuclear power, versus 25% in 2002.
- Scenarios which postulate maintaining or increasing nuclear capacity in France receive 54% of the vote, versus 42% in 2002.
The consciousness of the problems linked to the greenhouse effect and the consumption of energy has progressed significantly, but the knowledge of nuclear power’s advantages to reduce CO2 emissions has made little progress.
Moreover, the decision-makers’ discourse on nuclear has changed: the relevant question is no longer ‘for or against nuclear power?’ but ‘which nuclear power for the next 50 years?’
This problem includes technical issues, such as the question of ‘generations’ of nuclear systems, which have been discussed not only between experts but also in the media and between politicians but also political issues such as the kind of control elected representatives should have over nuclear operators, or the government’s responsibility for long-term research and development, or the international rules set up to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation, and so on.
The building of a first European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR), announced in 2004 in the draft of the blueprint law on energies (with other measures such as ‘energy saving certificates’ and measures favourable to renewable energies) seems to have met no real opposition in the media until today, and several sites are competing as candidates for the new construction.
The French National Debate on Energies took place under the context of trying to build more confidence in nuclear actors and in public authorities, by identifying technical and political levels of responsibility and by creating more interaction between the experts and the citizens.
The institutional evolution has gone in the same direction, giving more and more proof of transparency. Of course, dialogue with the public is, by nature, an endless task but these recent experiences lead us to a certain optimism: public opinion on energies can change, and depends highly on events on the one hand, and on communication and information processes on the other. So it is important to refuse the fatalism of ‘a poor public acceptance of nuclear energy’, which creates a vicious circle, and to explore all the routes to improve opinions through dialogue.
Based on a paper presented at the 'Fifty Years of Nuclear Power – the Next Fifty Years' meeting organised by the IAEA and held in Moscow and Obninsk, Russia, between 27 June and 2 July 2004.
Table survey data sourced from Alain Bucaille's presentation to the PIME 2004 meeting organised by the European Nuclear Society and held between 8-12 February 2004 in Barcelona, Spain.
Fanny Bazile, Forecast and communication director, Nuclear energy division, Commissariat à l’Energie, Atomique, CEA Saclay, 91191 Gif-sur-Yvette Cedex, France
|One quarter of people stated that their opinion had changed over the last year. Two-thirds of these now support nuclear energy|