France finally shuts down country’s oldest nuclear plant

The news has been praised by environmentalists after confirmation of the closure, nine years after it was first planned.

After 43 years in action, France’s nuclear power plant will close in what is a win for environmentalists who have long feared the contamination risks it posed.

The plant in Fessenheim, which opened in 1977, is already three years over its projected 40-year life span and had been targeted by anti-nuclear campaigners since 2011 after the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan.

While the plant will close right away, it will take several months before the reactors have cooled enough for the used fuel to be removed.

That should be completed by 2023, but the plant itself cannot be fully dismantled until 2040 at the earliest.

One of Fessenheim’s two reactors was disconnected in February this year, but the second, run by state-owned energy company EDF, remained operational.

Fessenheim union representative Anne Laszlo said: “We hope, above all, to be the last victims of this witch hunt against nuclear energy.”

One of many protests that took place in Fessenheim against the nuclear power plant remaining operational.  (Michael Schmalenstroer, Creative Commons)

There are fears about the effect it may have on the local economy, as only 294 people are needed on site for the fuel removal process.

In 2017, Fessenheim had more than 1,000 employees and service providers on its site.

Local mayor Claude Brender condemned the closure of the plant and told French TV: “It’s the end of a beautiful 50-year relationship between an area and it’s nuclear plant.”

He believes it helped create an “island of prosperity” in an otherwise poor part of Alsace.

The French government has urged that the plant’s workers will be transferred to other EDF sites.

While there is no legal limit on the life span of French nuclear power stations, EDF had planned a 40-year stay for all of its second-generation reactors, which use pressurised water technology.

ASN, France’s nuclear safety authority, has outlined that reactors can be operated beyond 40 years only if safety improvements are implemented.

There have been several safety failures reported at the plant, including electrical faults, water pollution, fuel leaks and cracks in reactor covers.

The ASN had criticied a “lack of rigour” in EDF’s operation of the plant.

Despite its closure, France will still have 56 pressurised water reactors at 18 nuclear plants generating around 70% of its electricity.

The country is currently the world’s biggest consumer of nuclear energy.

The French government has said it would shut 12 more reactors nearing or exceeding the 40-year limit by 2035.

It hopes by then that nuclear power could represent just 50% of the country’s energy in favour of renewable sources.

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