The cold snap that plunged France into an extraordinary deep freeze this past winter has revived the debate on whether the country's nuclear industry has grown too big too fast.
The frigid temperatures bolstered the position of France's state-run electricity authority, which had been criticized for expansion beyond the nation's electrical needs.
France's ambitious nuclear program--launched in 1973 to circumvent huge price jumps in oil--made it the second largest producer of power in the world, after the United States.
Within a decade, 34 nuclear units were functioning throughout the country, most of them French-built pressurized water reactors fueled by uranium.
The state-run utility Electricite de France boasted that the program gave consumers the cheapest power in Europe, a cocky statement in a country that has virtually no domestic oil supplies.
The political benefits were also clear. France--instead of being required to import half its energy needs, as it did before 1973--could provide 75% of its requirements and 85% of its electricity with nuclear energy.
The French began exporting power to other European countries and adopted ambitious plans to electrify Third World nations by selling them packages of cheap mass-produced reactors and nuclear fuel.
But the program came under heavy criticism last year. Its doubters charged that gross overcapacity and unnecessary debt had been created in a nationalized industry.
Third World Debt
The prolonged recession in the industrial world slowed electricity consumption by France and its neighbors, and huge debts incurred by Third World countries closed the door on hoped-for markets.
France was capable of building more reactors and producing more power than it could ever hope to sell, the critics charged.
Officials of the French utility put the brakes on the nuclear program, reducing construction to one installation this year and one or two next year. But the January cold spell, which plunged temperatures below zero for more than a week, silenced most critics.
The power grid was pushed to the limit, but it held. On Wednesday, Jan. 16, with temperatures dipping as low as 27 below zero, the French utility provided 59,400 megawatts of electricity--only 600 megawatts short of peak capacity--and staggered power cuts.
"This shows that France's electricity grid does not have excess capacity," utility president Marcel Boiteux said. "We are never safe from inclement weather."
Upswing in Late '80s
Officials predict that France's nuclear program will accelerate again in the late 1980s, when older equipment is due for replacement and Western economies are expected to have improved.
A number of questions remain unanswered, however--in particular the future of "Superphenix," the commercial fast breeder reactor in southeastern France that was to be the showpiece of the country's nuclear skill.
Like utilities in the United States and Britain, the French company decided last year to confine the project of the plutonium-fueled reactor to the prototype stage, a victim of high costs.
The attraction of the fast breeder, which produces more plutonium than it consumes in the energy-creation process, was as a hedge against uranium shortages.
But the discovery of new uranium deposits and the depressed world market for the ore undercut the need for Superphenix, which produces electricity at 2 1/2 times the cost of conventional units.
The French utility's president conceded that the project was "tougher than we had thought." One French politician said the fast breeder would be a "fundamental project for the 21st Century."
The fast breeder, opposed by pacifists who fear that the plutonium could be diverted for military purposes, also ran into technical problems--with officials encountering abnormal vibrations during its operation.
The slowdown on Superphenix is viewed as a setback, but it has failed to dent the generally favorable view of the nuclear industry among French politicians and independent experts. All political parties, from the conservative opposition to the Communists, favor France's "nuclear option."
Towns on the Atlantic and English Channel coasts, where environmentalists battled police in anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1970s, now compete with each other for future reactor installations and the thousands of jobs that go with them.
Martin Crijns, of a Paris-based international nuclear energy agency, says the debate on the size and shape of the French projects is a false one because "no one can really predict what future consumption patterns will be."
"France will likely have a small overcapacity in the 1990s, but there will be no shortages," he said. "The United States, because it has stopped production, will very likely run short. It should start looking toward that now."