French labor union openly opposes nuclear

This is big news – for the first time, French labour union General Confederation of Labor (CGT) has spoken out clearly for the closure of France’s oldest nuclear plant. The reasons given argue against nuclear in general. Craig Morris investigates.

Fessenheim Nuclear Power Plant

The pro-nuclear coalition in France continues to crumble, as biggest French union CGT debates its position on nuclear and further operation of Fessenheim nuclear plant. (Photo by Florival fr, CC BY SA 3.0)


In Germany, labor union support for renewables and against nuclear has a long tradition; German unions defected decades ago when they realized the net job gains from an energy transition.

In France, the situation has been much different. Granted, one labor union did openly state its criticism for nuclear in 2013, but the CGT – which my French colleagues tell me is the stronger force to reckon with – has remained firmly pro-nuclear (see our previous post on the matter). Until now.

Alsace is the region of France bordering Germany (the two départements of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin). More importantly, it is where Fessenheim is located –France’s oldest operating nuclear reactor, and one that is scheduled to be shut down next. The question is when, and the answer will set the course for the country’s future energy policy. The official policy is that France aims to reduce the share of nuclear in power supply from the current roughly 75 percent to 50 percent – but we have no roadmap, and the French public is divided as soon as the discussion turns to specific plants being shut down.

On June 30, the Alsace chapter of the CGT did not mince words in a letter to the union’s Secretary-General:

“You have made statements to the press concerning nuclear that discredit the CGT among all workers.”

The letter charges that the CGT leaders “take no account of the expertise of nuclear workers, technicians, and engineers” who have expressed concerns, opting instead to protect the interest of shareholders (“capitalistes”) “who maximize profit to the detriment of the public.”

From there, the letter reviews practically every charge against nuclear that has ever been made. It complains that “enriched uranium is to be used for nuclear weapons.” And while France often mistakenly speaks of its nuclear power as a “domestic” energy source, CGT Alsace argues that nuclear “pillages mineral resources” of other countries, “particularly Africa: AREVA operates mines in Niger.” And of course, it adds that cost are rising, as are risks.

One central argument made in favor of nuclear is that the power is needed, especially for industry, but Fessenheim was shut down temporarily and ahead of schedule on 18 April 2014, and “no restriction in energy consumption has disturbed either our way of life in Alsace or industrial activity.” Indeed, I might add that the Cattenom plant has also shut down repeatedly this year without any disruption in power supply. More importantly, the official reason given for the shutdown of reactor 2 at Cattenom was a reaction “to lower power demand.” A more complete overview is here from plant operator EDF, and Reuters also published this list of planned and unplanned nuclear shutdowns in France recently. I would conclude that there is excess generation capacity in France during the summer (and a deficit in the winter).

Unfortunately, the letter from CGT Alsace degenerates into boilerplate rhetoric near the end, where it speaks of “class warfare,” with “the capitalist world maximizing profits.” Germans would probably argue the following:

  • We will get more jobs nationwide from renewables then we will lose by shutting down nuclear.
  • A nuclear industry centralizes political and financial power, thereby perpetuating itself – you create powerful organizations that protect themselves.
  • Renewables are more distributed, creating far more market players – not an oligopoly of firms “too big to fail.”
  • Central power means that federal officials and experts will tell locals just to believe them, but if something goes wrong with nuclear, the local problem might be too big to fix.
  • Finally, a distributed power supply will give communities a bigger say in local developments; in fact, people can build their energy supply themselves.

It’s too soon to say what the impact of the CGT Alsace’s breaking ranks will be, but the loss of the CGT as a proponent of nuclear in France would change the debate considerably. My sources in France tell me that other CGT delegates are also critical of the Secretary-General’s staunch pro-nuclear position but have yet to publish their criticism. Here’s hoping they go public soon – and move beyond the boilerplate rhetoric used on posters at demonstrations and adopt more convincing (indeed, irrefutable) arguments.

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of German Energy Transition. He directs Petite Planète and writes every workday for Renewables International.

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Craig Morris

Craig Morris (@PPchef) is the lead author of Global Energy Transition. He is co-author of Energy Democracy, the first history of Germany’s Energiewende, and is currently Senior Fellow at the IASS.

2 Comments

  1. jmdesp says

    That’s actually a paper by one specific branch of the CGT, the “CGT Equipement-Environnement” which represent employees of the ministry of ecology and of the ministry of equipment. CGT-energie which represent workers in the energy sectors has always been very much in favor of nuclear and very knowledgeable about what it brings.

    As usual, your prejudice against nuclear and in favor of fossil power is quite amazing. Do you not realize that tens of fossil plants are currently shut down in Germany because their power is not required in summer, and it’s more efficient economically to shut them down and import power when there’s a bit more demand ?
    Why it this for you OK for fossil power, and supposedly a big huge problem for nuclear ? As the fuel is very cheap, a nuclear plant is usually not as quickly shut down as a fossil one. But where is the problem if it’s done ?

    • Craig Morris
      Craig Morris says

      jmdesp,

      Idling fossil plants is not a problem, but the goal.

      We are concerned about nuclear plants ramping because the risk of an accident increases when they do so (according to nuclear experts), and France has built numerous plants along the German border. I live within 25 km of Fessenheim in Freiburg, for instance.

      Ciao

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