Despite the commitment of the then president François Hollande, just a few months after the Fukushima disaster, to close Fessenheim – on the Rhine near the eastern border of France with Germany and Switzerland – it is only ” in 2018 that his successor Emmanuel Macron gave the final green light.
Managed by the public energy company EDF (Électricité de France), one of the two reactors at Fessenheim was shut down in February.
The second will go offline early Tuesday, but it will take several months before the reactors have cooled enough for the spent fuel to be removed.
This process is expected to be completed by 2023, and the plant is not expected to be fully dismantled until 2040 at the earliest.
“We hope above all to be the last victims of this witch hunt against nuclear energy,” said Fessenheim union representative Anne Laszlo before the closure, which will see around 150 families leave the tiny Alsatian community of 2,500 inhabitants this summer. .
Others will follow, with only 294 people needed on site for the fuel removal process until 2023, and around 60 afterwards for final disassembly.
At the end of 2017, Fessenheim had more than 1,000 employees and service providers on site.
There is no legal limit to the life of French nuclear power plants, but EDF had set a 40-year ceiling for all second-generation reactors, which use pressurized water technology.
“Island of Prosperity”
The French nuclear safety authority, ASN, has declared that the reactors cannot be operated beyond 40 years unless ambitious safety improvements are undertaken.
In the 1990s and 2000s, several safety failures were reported at Fessenheim, including an electrical failure, cracks in the reactor cover, a chemical error, water pollution, a fuel leak, and non-radioactive contamination. lethal workers.
In 2007, the same year, a Swiss study found that the seismic risks in Alsace had been underestimated during construction, ASN denounced a “lack of rigor” in the operation of the EDF factory.
Without Fessenheim, France will still have 56 pressurized water reactors distributed in 18 nuclear power plants, producing around 70% of its electricity. Only the United States, with 98, has more reactors, but France is by far the world’s largest consumer of nuclear energy.
In January, the French government announced that it would shut down 12 more reactors that would approach or exceed the 40-year limit by 2035, while nuclear power is expected to account for only 50% of the country’s energy mix in favor of renewable sources.
At the same time, EDF is fighting to put its first next generation reactor into service by 2022 – 10 years behind schedule – and others could be in preparation.
Local mayor Claude Brender has condemned the closure of the plant, which he says has helped create an “island of prosperity” in an otherwise poor part of Alsace.
The government has announced that workers will be transferred to other EDF sites.
“Liberation of nuclear power”
At their home in Fessenheim, engineer Jean-Christophe Rouaud and his wife Cécile, director of the local crèche, packed boxes before moving with their two children to another city where he found work in a nuclear power plant.
As the end drew near, “people are afraid of no longer hearing the machines spinning,” Rouaud told AFP, “a feeling of waste shared by all employees.”
Many others will have no choice but to leave their families in Alsace and work elsewhere.
The restaurant owner, Laurent Schwein, said that the future of auxiliary businesses in the city looked dire.
“As restaurateurs, we are entering the unknown. We don’t know how long the dismantling will take, “said Schwein, who is also the president of the local football club which will now close with the departure of most of its young players.
Fessenheimer Gabriel Weisser is one of the few to welcome the city’s “nuclear liberation”.
“They stand up for their professional lives, me for my own life,” he said of the factory’s staunch supporters.