France’s oldest nuclear power plant will close on Tuesday after four decades of operation, much to the delight of environmental activists who have long warned of the risks of contamination but are worried about the local economy.
The Fessenheim plant, opened in 1977 and already three years into its 40-year lifespan, became a target for anti-nuclear activists after the catastrophic collapse of Fukushima in Japan in 2011.
Despite the commitment of the then president François Hollande, only 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.
One of the two reactors at Fessenheim, managed by the public energy company EDF, was shut down in February.
The second is scheduled to 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.
“Above all, we hope to be the last victims of this witch hunt against nuclear energy,” said Fessenheim union representative Anne Laszlo before the closure, who will see around 150 families leaving 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.
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 EDF’s operation of the 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 largest consumer of nuclear energy in the world.
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.