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Going to the heart of France's nuclear power ambitions

By Alysen Miller, CNN
  • Nuclear power accounts for 80 percent of France's electricity supplies
  • Tricastin power station lies in the heart of the Rhone valley
  • French authorities see nuclear power, through fission, and later fusion, as essential
  • Some residents living close to power station want it closed because of safety concerns

Tricastin, France (CNN) -- As an intrepid producer for CNN, I have been in some strange situations. Possibly the strangest, however, was on a recent trip to France to produce a piece on nuclear energy for the latest episode of Earth's Frontiers. We were about to be taken on a rare behind-the-scenes tour of Tricastin Nuclear Power Station's nuclear reactor.

The core of a nuclear reactor comprises a central "fuel zone," where fissile material, normally enriched uranium, is placed. This is how I found myself donning a radiation suit for the first -- and probably only -- time in my life.

After clearing several layers of security we are finally admitted into the room housing the fuel. We enter a large, windowless room, pervaded by an unearthly light. At the end of the room there is a swimming pool some 20 meters deep, in which rods of enriched uranium are submerged in a giant lattice.

The water is so clear and still that, were it not for the multiple scary signs warning of the dangers of radiation poisoning, it would have been tempting to jump in.

Video: France's nuclear future

But the azure tranquility of the pool belies the potent purpose of the material contained therein; around 6 percent of France's total electricity is produced here, with Tricastin's four reactors each capable of producing 900 megawatts of power; although around two thirds of that goes directly to the neighboring uranium enrichment facility, which, in turn, enriches the uranium that powers the reactors.

There is a limit to the amount of time we can safely spend in the radiated area, so we scramble to gather as much footage as possible. It's not often television crews are admitted into this area and it may be a while before we are invited back.

Nuclear is certainly much greener than coal or oil because it does not produce CO2.
--Professor Jean Jacquinot
Fact Box
  • France has 58 nuclear power stations
  • France gets nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power
  • France is one of few countries with nuclear reprocessing program
  • Tricastin power station can provide 6 percent of France's electricity

    A buzzer sounds and we shuffle out of the room, back through the heavy door through which we entered. My dosimeter gives a reading of 00.001, indicating I have survived my trip into the heart of the reactor core without being exposed to a dangerous level of radiation.

    No nation has embraced nuclear energy like France. As a national debate rages in the United States over President Barack Obama's interest in nuclear power, France has built up an energy portfolio that sees around 80 percent of its electricity coming from nuclear power.

    Part of that, explains Professor Jean Jacquinot, scientific advisor to the French High Commissioner for Atomic Energy, is because France has little in the way of natural resources itself.

    "Essentially France has very little gas, oil or coal, so if it wanted to have some energy independence it had little other option than to use nuclear. It's certainly much greener than coal or oil because it does not produce CO2," he told CNN.

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    But not everyone in France has embraced the atom. In the medieval village of La Garde-Adhémar, from its commanding position overlooking the Rhone valley, local resident Jean-Pierre Morichaud tells me that he is worried about the catastrophic consequences of a Chernobyl-style accident at Tricastin.

    As he talks the smoke stacks that service the power station are clearly visible rising from the vine-laced earth. He is not alone: Sortir du Nucléaire, which represents around 800 anti-nuclear groups, is actively campaigning for the closure of Tricastin and the other 57 nuclear power plants in France.

    But the future of nuclear power arguably does not lie in conventional nuclear power plants like Tricastin but with experimental fusion reactors like the one being tested at the Cadarache nuclear research facility, 70 miles to the south. Fusion holds the promise of generating massive amounts of energy without the need for uranium.

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    But fusion is still decades away from any commercial use. In the meantime, says Professor Jacquinot, with the demand on energy increasing all the time, nuclear represents our best option to meet those needs.

    "Would you rather live next to a coal power station or a nuclear power station? I have no doubt that I would choose to be next to a nuclear power station."