Today's rhetoric about nuclear power as an ally in the fight against climate change has a long history, and conceals its environmental impact.

* Lire en français. The English translation is provided by the editorial staff, who are solely responsible for any inaccuracies.

Could climate change be the nuclear industry's best ally? Despite its environmental impact, nuclear power is enjoying a relative renaissance in the name of climate protection. In fact, unlike hydrocarbons, nuclear power emits virtually no CO2. Compared with renewable energies, it can be activated according to consumption needs. As a result, France is keen to renew its fleet with the construction of new reactors, and at COP28, several dozen countries signed a joint declaration calling for an increase in global capacity.

In Le Nucléaire imaginé. Le rêve du capitalisme sans Terre (Imagining Nuclear Power. The Dream of Earthless Capitalism), Ange Pottin analyzes the (ecological) rhetoric of nuclear power promoters and confronts them with the reality and difficulties of the industry, both in terms of safety and, above all, the recycling (or non-recycling) of nuclear fuel. His book is in fact based on his doctoral dissertation in philosophy, mainly devoted to the nuclear "waste" cycle and the hopes of reusing it indefinitely. In defending such a hope, the advocates of French nuclear power aimed both to offer clean energy and to guarantee the country's energy sovereignty.

Independence or interdependence?

The pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the recurring maintenance problems faced by France's aging power plants have brought the fragility of the West's infrastructure back into the spotlight. Yet, some proponents of nuclear power continue to extol the virtues of energy that is relatively free from earthly constraints. For the philosopher, this energy is symptomatic of an "industrial capitalism [...] traversed by a strange contradiction: while promising independence from the Earth, it is constantly extending its heavy terrestrial hold".

These discourses on nuclear power are not new, as Ange Pottin shows by reviewing their post-war history. He draws on two concepts: "the imaginary" and "fissile capital". The former "designates representations that are distinguished both by their distorting relationship to reality and by their power to mobilize collectively." In the case of nuclear power, Ange Pottin focuses on the invisibilization of its material operating conditions. Based on the Marxist concept of capital, he considers that "the fissile capital project amounts to appropriating a set of radioactive substances for the purpose of accumulating economic value".

The French "closed fuel cycle" strategy lies at the heart of the relationship between these two terms. Since the 1950s, industrialists have believed that it would be possible to reuse nuclear fuel indefinitely, "justifying the creation of a dangerous, polluting and controversial infrastructure". This hope is increasingly being called into question, even within the industry itself. This infrastructure is also showing "signs of weakness", whether in its ability to ensure the safety of its facilities, to build new ones or, above all, to recycle its waste. For want of anything better, waste has to be reprocessed - as at La Hague - or buried - as at Bure - with all the uncertainties that this entails for future generations.

A French history

In this story, Françafrique - with the stakes of uranium mining -, the belief in progress of the period of growth between  1945 and 1975 - with the engineers of the Commissariat à l'Energie Atomique (CEA) - and a national project of independence but also of technological export on a global scale, all intersect. These contradictions, and the interdependencies masked by the supporters of nuclear power studied by Ange Pottin, have not contributed to the stability of this energy.

Yet, in the face of the intermittent nature of renewable energies, it is nuclear power's ability to be controlled that is now being emphasized. Nevertheless, nuclear power is made more vulnerable by climate change, which reduces its ability to be cooled during certain meteorological episodes. Not to mention the difficulties in building new power plants, due to the loss of skills, or the political instability prevailing in certain uranium-producing countries, such as Niger. In both cases, however, the situation could change with the new construction program. France has also diversified its fuel supplies.

The history of nuclear power is also a history of diplomacy and geopolitics, with the need to convince other countries to invest and ensure France's dominant position in power plant construction and waste treatment. Faced with the coming scarcity of oil and the growing need for electricity in developing countries, France has been touting, since the 1970s, an environmentally-friendly nuclear power system capable of meeting this dual challenge. Despite this strategy, France is now outpacing countries such as China and Russia in the construction of new power plants.

Challenging nuclear power

In an interesting development, Ange Pottin looks back at the contestation of "fissile capital". This began in the 1970s and originated in the trade unions, via the CFDT-affiliated Syndicat national du personnel de l'énergie atomique (SNPEA). While refuting the growth imperative of nuclear power, its aim is to "make the irradiated infrastructure visible". Such action goes beyond labor-related demands, even if the denunciation focuses in particular on the subcontracting of facility security to the private sector. Drawing on in-house expertise, the unionists are documenting and publicizing the risks associated with working conditions and waste. "Through their critical investigative work, SNPEA trade unionists have made visible the material, corporeal and terrestrial anchoring of the fissile capital project. In so doing, they have provided a representation of nuclear infrastructure that runs counter to the unearthed imaginary promoted by the nucleocrats."

In this compact book, Ange Pottin mobilizes facts and arguments that are often well known to the general public in the service of a fairly straightforward thesis aimed at deconstructing the partly historically dated discourse of certain nuclear advocates. However, the focus is on the future of waste, with no mention, for example, of developments in plant safety since Fukushima. While it does have the merit of shedding light on little-known episodes in the promotion and contestation of nuclear power, it could have focused more on the singularity of the current context leading to the revival of the atom.