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France's nuclear power program sparks tensions with Germany over what is clean energy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The European Union has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050. But the bloc's two largest members, Germany and France, disagree on how to get there. The countries have diametrically opposed visions of nuclear power, and that could complicate EU plans for a cohesive strategy. We'll hear more now from our correspondents in both places, beginning with NPR's Eleanor Beardsley in France.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: President Emmanuel Macron recently made a speech that no one could have imagined a few years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: He said for the first time in decades, France will launch the construction of new nuclear reactors to ensure energy independence and reach carbon neutrality by 2050. For many years, nuclear was popular in France. The country gets 70% of its electricity from atomic energy. That changed in 2011.

PIERRE-LOUIS BRENAC: The delicate situation post-Fukushima meant for a number of European countries, including France, to rethink their nuclear strategies.

BEARDSLEY: That's energy consultant Pierre-Louis Brenac of Sia Partners. He says the tidal wave that swept over the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in Japan had a profound effect on public opinion. After the deadly accident, President Francois Hollande promised to reduce the country's dependence on nuclear. But then, Brenac says, came another wakeup moment - the 2015 Paris climate conference. The world, he says, realized climate change was already upon us.

BRENAC: You realize that not only do you need less carbon-emitting electricity sources, but you need more electricity in total. And that's where really nuclear came back in fashion. Nuclear comes back into solving this equation because nuclear is a source of abundant electricity, extremely low carbon if not zero carbon.

BEARDSLEY: Brenac says France sees nuclear as integral to energy transition to work alongside renewables.

BRENAC: Renewable energy sources are excellent, but they cannot work alone because they are intermittent, meaning that when the wind stops blowing or when the sun is covered with clouds, you don't get any electricity out of them.

BEARDSLEY: Two other factors playing in nuclear's favor these days, says Brenac, are skyrocketing natural gas prices and the threat of dependence on energy from Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: Last month the World Nuclear Exposition took place on the outskirts of Paris for the first time since the pandemic began. Damien Thomas is with Swedish company Nord-Lock Group, which makes ultra-secure bolts.

DAMIEN THOMAS: Nuclear power is back. There's a lot of push from politics across Europe. The decarbonizing of the industry will anyway need something more than just the renewables.

BEARDSLEY: For the first time, the European Commission is on the verge of classifying nuclear power and some natural gas as green in order to help Europe cut its CO2 emissions and meet its 2050 goal. Such a move would draw investment and spur a resurgence of nuclear power across the continent. The proposal follows months of lobbying by France and other pro-nuclear countries over the objections of an anti-nuclear camp led by Germany.

FREDERIQUE DAMERVAL: At the same time, the condemnation...

BEARDSLEY: Many at this trade fair, Germans among them, feel Germany made a mistake by completely abandoning nuclear. Frederique Damerval is a consultant in nuclear waste treatment.

DAMERVAL: They stop nuclear power, but they replace it by gas and by coal.

BEARDSLEY: Which released much more CO2 into the atmosphere. People here say the disastrous consequences of climate change are already far outweigh the potential risk of a nuclear accident like Fukushima. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.