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La vie en atom

France made its tryst with nuclear energy in the 70s with the launch of an ambitious N-power plant construction programme. India should also make a policy choice of this kind, writes Bernard Bigot.

india Updated: Apr 15, 2008 22:33 IST
Bernard Bigot
Bernard Bigot

In the early 1970s, France decided to launch an ambitious nuclear power plant construction programme to meet a great part of its electricity needs. This was a time when the prospect of a rapid depletion of its fossil resources loomed large. This long-term strategic orientation was set in an era in which petrol was much cheaper than it is today and the world was yet to be confronted with the challenges of climate change. Almost 40 years down the line, the French authorities have every reason to be pleased with this visionary choice. It has enabled France to enjoy one of the lowest electricity prices in the world, limit its energy dependence and offer greater freedom of action to successive governments to conduct France’s policies, thus contributing to the reinforcement of its sovereignty and position in the world.

In 2006, 78 per cent of electricity in France was produced from nuclear energy at extremely competitive prices. Nuclear power accounted for around 42 per cent of France’s primary energy consumption. In the face of the growing scarcity of energy resources and the urgent need to fight climate change, today France can rely on a civilian nuclear programme that constitutes an undeniable advantage for the concretisation of its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and for the maintenance of its international competitiveness. France can also have significant leeway for developing energy efficiency policies and increased recourse to renewable energies in order to replace fossil energies.

The aims of the French nuclear power programme could not have been attained if France had not equally made the strategic choice of taking recourse to international cooperation for completing its ambitious nuclear programme by the necessary deadlines. By choosing to depend, in the initial phase, on a proven technology developed abroad, the French authorities equipped the country with high-capacity units that have proven to be very competitive. France then indigenised this technology in complete independence, standardised it and ensured its evolution to the extent that it became a ‘national’ technology, then a ‘global’ one with the Evolutionary Pressurised Reactor (EPR).

Today, it seems to us that India might also have to make, in turn, a policy choice of this kind. The Indian government wishes to raise significantly the share of nuclear power in national electricity production so that the country continues soaring socially and economically. This is a political orientation that France understands perfectly. This is why since 1998, France has spared no effort to make its international partners recognise India’s particularity. Indeed, India has not signed the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT), but its behaviour has been responsible in this regard. It has huge energy needs, and has started a process of defining a strategy on how to address the global challenge of climate change. An increased recourse to civil nuclear energy in India, benefiting from international cooperations to attain faster and more assuredly its growth aims, therefore, seems highly desirable.

During the visit to India of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in January, the negotiations of an inter-governmental agreement on the development of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes was finalised. Nonetheless, in order for both countries to start full civil nuclear cooperation anew, India must conclude a Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, and the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) must grant India an exemption. France supports India’s efforts in achieving these goals and hopes that these stages will be crossed at the earliest.

Opening up to international cooperations in accordance with the IAEA set of principles does not in any way prohibit India from pursuing the orientations of its domestic nuclear programme in full sovereignty. Cooperation is a technological choice complementary to national research efforts. Our experience shows that this is a means to benefit from the expertise of other countries which have successfully conducted a large-scale nuclear programme, so as to attain the goals fixed as fast as possible while complying with safety and non-proliferation requirements, and take the best advantage of one’s own technological and human potential. Abundance and diversity of supply of nuclear material and associated services on the international market render the development of such long-term cooperation with friendly countries particularly attractive.

My visit to India is being made in this spirit of cooperation, supported by the excellence of India’s civilian nuclear programme and the high scientific level of its researches. This is the opportunity to reaffirm that once the necessary conditions are met, France is willing to help India in significantly and rapidly extending its nuclear power stations, ensuring nuclear fuel supply and enabling it to access related services currently not available to it.

The excellent ties developed since decades between the French Atomic Energy Commission and the Indian Department of Atomic Energy have enabled us to establish a lasting relation of confidence, on an equal footing, between our scientific communities. It is up to us to nurture and expand this bilateral relation together and develop its full potential in the areas of nuclear research, nuclear safety, training and exchange of scientists, and at the industrial and commercial levels as well.

Bernard Bigot is the French Commissioner for Atomic Energy