The Roots of French Nuclear Energy Policy

A recent posting on this blog (Truth about the Nuclear Industry Leaks out on French Television, 2017/11/23) discussed a rare moment of truth on French television when journalist Jean-Michel Aphatie spoke bluntly about the significance of the nuclear legacy, stating, “In ten years we will speak of nuclear in France as one of the greatest scandals ever, an aberrant political decision–and it’s General de Gaulle who made it–totally aberrant. Nuclear is a lie.”

The post received 850 page views within a week which, for this obscure blog, is the equivalent of hitting the big time and “going viral.” Since the topic was of such interest, it is worth revisiting to discuss some feedback I received from a reader which offers some corrections on the information conveyed by Jean-Michel Aphatie. The section that follows was co-authored by that reader, Antoine Godinot, and Dennis Riches, the usual blog author.


The number of nuclear reactors is actually 58 and they all are quite big, ranging from 880 to 1450 MW of electricity generating capacity, while the one being finished near Brittany is 1650MW. Quite a few of them have flaws in steel parts of the primary circuit, either in the steam generator or the pressure vessel (too much carbon in recent parts, too much phosphorus in some older ones). If there is an accident, or a disaster, the financial responsibility of the operators, EDF, or Areva, in the case of fuel factories, is limited to 750 million euros. This is very small compared to the potential harm which could only be compared to that which would arise from a war (and a long one at that) since it is the population who would bear most of the consequences. One doesn’t need to be an economist to see from this that the nuclear industry is not economically viable.

As for the people responsible for establishing nuclear energy, it was de Gaulle who created the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (CEA, with Frederic Joliot on October 18th, 1945), but he disappeared very quickly from the political scene on January 20th, 1946, and the first atomic reactors (and therefore production of plutonium) had been in operation before he came back to power on June 2nd, 1958.

The Pressurized Water Reactors (all under American Westinghouse’s patent) are linked to another political figure, former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (president 1974-1981), who is now 91 years old. Nearly all the present reactors were ordered when he was either Minister of Economy/Industry or later when he was President of the Republic. He is really the main person responsible for the nation’s nuclear energy policy.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is from quite a different lineage than de Gaulle since his father, Edmond Giscard d’Estaing (1894-1982) was close to Philippe Pétain and was the president of the Société Financière Française et Coloniale, SFFC, which was mainly doing business in what was then called ”Indochine” (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). The SFFC was intimately connected to the Banque d’Indochine which issued the piastre de commerce, the currency of French Indochina between 1885 and 1952.

The businesses of the father, Edmond Giscard d’Estaing, (in rubber, sugar cane, tin, tea, rice, anthracite and other resources from Indochine) were active throughout WWII when the Vichy government (with Philippe Pétain as head of state) maintained an embassy in Tokyo. The Banque d’Indochine had a branch in Tokyo, and throughout WWII it had connections to the Yokohama Specie Bank,* which became The Bank of Tokyo in 1946.

General de Gaulle, who opposed the Vichy regime from exile in Britain, was from the opposing political stream, allied with the UK and the USA from the start of the war. He was an avid promoter of France restoring its status by becoming a nuclear power, but the later drive to develop nuclear energy is more correctly attributed to Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. He built upon France’s status as a nuclear weapons state to turn it into the country with the highest reliance on nuclear as a source of electricity.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was a teenager during WWII, so it cannot be said that he is guilty of his father’s involvement with the exploitation of Indochina or of collaboration with wartime Germany and Japan, but his rise to power is, to say the least, curious. Charles de Gaulle went from being an ally of the Anglo-Saxon powers to being a French president who continually antagonized the United States. He challenged post-war American supremacy in France’s losing battle to regain control of its former colonies. He eventually took France out of NATO in 1966. A close look at the tensions between the US and France during the Cold War is, in fact, enough to make one re-consider who the actual adversaries were. In any case, a decade after de Gaulle pulled out of NATO, he was out of the way and Americans were selling American nuclear reactors to a more agreeable French president who had family ties to the Vichy regime. France returned to NATO in 2009 during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy.

* Yokohama Specie Bank (横浜正金銀行 Yokohama Shōkin Ginkō) was a Japanese bank founded in Yokohama, Japan in the year 1880. Its assets were transferred to The Bank of Tokyo (now The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ) in 1946. The bank played a significant role in Japanese trade with China. The original bank building is now the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Cultural History. During the Second World War the bank acted as the paymaster for the Imperial Japanese Army as it conquered parts of Asia (Wikipedia 2017/11/29).

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