A Franco-German row over nuclear power

Financial Times
Saarbrucken, April 11, 1989

In Grosbliederstroff, on the French side of the border, the mayor has a German name. In Kleinblittersdorf, on the German side, the mayor’s surname is French. That is how closely the French region of Lorraine and the German federal state of Saarland are intertwined. On the French side there may be some bitter memories of German armies, but they are well buried.

The two regions did business together for centuries before Bismarck or Hitler came along. At the frontier the guards have little to do but wave through the Lorrains on their way to work in Saarland, or Germans driving to their second homes in France. Nobody will mourn when the border post disappears next year.

The most stony-hearted opponent of European unity could not fail to be impressed by the way the tragedies of modern history have been transcended, one might think.

But then there is an awkward fact.

The government of Saarland, backed by Luxembourg and many German municipalities, has waged a relentless legal and political battle to paralyse what Lorraine sees as the showpiece of its economy – and many Germans consider a deadly ecological danger. The apples of discord lie a few miles inside the French border at the village of Cattenom: four giant concrete cylinders which tower over the flat fields of Lorraine.

Each contains a 1300 MW pressurised water reactor of the kind that France has virtually mass-produced, to the point where 70% of its power comes from nuclear sources. And Cattenom is one of the biggest nuclear power complexes in Europe.

The further left you go in French politics, the more you support the reactors. Paul Souffrin, the popular doctor who is mayor of Thionville – a depressed former steel town to which the Cattenom reactors brought much-needed prosperity – is a Communist, and ardently supports le nucleaire.

The further left you go in German politics, the more you oppose the reactors. German doubts about Cattenom go back a decade (among the first to express them was Helmut Kohl, before he became Chancellor) – but Saarland’s campaign really began after the 1985 victory of the Social Democrats in state elections.

The Social Democrats place massive emphasis on the environment and are committed to phasing out West Germany’s nuclear programme. Spearheading Saarland’s campaign are Oskar Lafontaine, the state premier and a possible future chancellor, and his environment minister Jo Leinen, an intense young lawyer who used to be a full-time green agitator.

Their ultimate goal is a total halt to production at Cattenom, where two reactors are already on stream and a third is almost ready. The immediate aim is to make the French adopt what the Germans consider to be better safety standards. Mr Leinen reels off a list of perceived defects in French reactors. German reactors have four refrigeration systems and four internal power generation systems; the French have only two of each. German reactors are surrounded by steel as well as concrete; the French merely have concrete which in older reactors are showing signs of fissures. French reactors are vulnerable both to crashing aircraft and terrorist attack.

A few miles away, in his office in the heart of the nuclear complex, Alain Malfont, director of the French installations, reels off the replies. Yes, German reactors have more cooling and power generation systems, but French ones are twice as powerful. Yes, German reactors are covered by steel but French ones have two layers of concrete, which are just as good.

“The margin of security is the same, there are just two different ways of achieving it,” he insists. His tone is an engaging mixture of the earthy pragmatism of his native Massif Central and the elegant, didactic manner which a French education instils. He is insidiously convincing.

Since 1987, the Saarland government, with support from Luxembourg and some French ecological groups, has been waging a complex legal war in the French and European courts. They have used an ingenious series of procedural objections.

One was that France issued permits for the reactors to start emitting radioactive material (in effect, to start functioning) before getting approval from Euratom, the nuclear arm of the EC.

Last autumn, the European Court ruled that the French permits had been wrongly issued. So Paris issued new ones.

A classic example of “the nuclear Mafia neglecting the law,” Mr Leinen says. “How cynical can you get?” the Saarlanders asked. The French reply, not without relevance, that Euratom did approve Cattenom soon after the court case began in mid-1987.

Ah yes, the Saarlanders answer, but the Euratom go-ahead was subject to two conditions which the French have ignored: that France undertake to inform its neighbours of any incidents at Cattenom, and that German norms (five times tougher than French ones) be adopted in respect of radioactive effluent dumped in the Moselle River.

The French say they respect German norms de facto, but they will not formally adjust their own norms. “It’s a question of national sovereignty,” says Mr Malfont.

The Cattenom opponents also say the French violated their own laws by giving the third and fourth reactors capacity of 1300MW each, although they had only completed planning procedures for reactors of 900MW. The French say the Conseil d’Etat in Paris ruled in 1980 that reactors’ size could be increased without restarting procedures.

The legal and political dispute is a fascinating study in microcosm of the yawning cultural gap between France and West Germany over ecological issues. On the German side,
there is “more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger” priggishness that infuriates the French – who seem unwilling to believe, possibly because it is so foreign to their own thinking, that the German conviction is sincere.

The Germans look across the border and see an authoritarian state, denying information about the environment to its own citizens and riding roughshod over the law. The French see the Saarlanders’ policy as a cynical attempt to shore up a subsidised (and, it may be argued, more noxious) coal industry at the expense of France’s courageous bid to achieve energy independence in defiance of a hostile world.

“The Germans made a terrible mistake by arousing French patriotism,” says Mr Malfont. There is glee in his voice as he pronounces that 5% of Cattenom’s output is sold to West Germany. “Lafontaine said no Cattenom electricity would pass through Saarland – but he doesn’t control the grids,” he chuckles.

So have personal relations between the Lorrains and Saarlanders come under strain? Remarkably they have not noticeably deteriorated. Were this an Anglo-French dispute, one would expect language on both sides to be laced with dark, chauvinistic innuendo – with an upsurge, in Britain, of anti-European sentiment.

The Cattenom dispute is more than a game: the time and money spent in the courts is proof of that. But the conflict does not appear to have shaken either pro-European sentiment or personal relations between the peoples of the two regions.

The dispute’s protagonists enjoy a bantering relationship and speak of each other with something like exasperated affection. Anecdotes are told of public debates on the nuclear issue in which French and German officials do verbal battle and then sit down to an enjoyable dinner. As a Saarland official explains, “there is a certain consensus on the importance of good food and wine.”