Behind a fence outside the small town of Flamanville on the Normandy coast stands a growing mountain of concrete and steel that represents the future of one of France's most important industries. It's the worksite of the country's first new generation nuclear power plant, known as the European Pressurized Reactor, or EPR. France already gets 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, and it's clear that France's powerful nuclear establishment is betting heavily on the new design.
The government-owned utility company that's building the Flamanville reactor declined to be interviewed, but the plant's designers say the so-called "third-generation" reactor is safer, more fuel-efficient and more economical to operate than older reactors. And the industry hopes it'll not only maintain nuclear power's strong dominance in France but also be the flagship technology that France exports throughout the world.
But the reality of the EPR has so far been less impressive. The Flamanville plant is four years behind schedule and nearly $4 billion over budget. And another EPR under construction in Finland has also been plagued with delays and huge cost overruns.
Tarik Choho, an executive with Areva, the government-owned company that designed the EPR, concedes that it has had a less-than-auspicious debut.
"We have gone through some issues, some growing pains," Choho says. "We are learning from that."
Choho says you're going to run into some kinks building a new design for the first time. But when the plants in Finland and Flamanville finally go on line, he says, "people will be so excited about this new generation of reactors starting that maybe some of these pains will be forgotten."
A year or so ago, Choho may have been right. France gets a bigger share of its electricity from nuclear power than any other country, and the French public used to consistently support nuclear technology. But as in other countries here in Europe and elsewhere, last year's disaster in Fukushima, Japan, has caused many here to have second thoughts.
"Clearly, what Fukushima changed in France is that now, people know about nuclear energy," says Greenpeace France campaigner Sophia Majnoni. Majnoni says the accident in Japan, plus the upcoming French presidential election, has triggered a national debate.
"It's a political debate, but also a technical debate, which gave a lot of information to the people which they didn't have before," she says. "So I would say that the debate is now much more mature in France than it was a year ago."
Once rock-solid support for nuclear power here has fallen dramatically. Recent polls have found that more than 80 percent of French voters now object to building new nuclear plants, and nearly two-thirds support phasing out existing plants.
Those poll numbers may have played a role in the decision by France's opposition Socialists to support a plan by the smaller Green Party to close almost half of the country's 58 nukes by 20-25. Socialist presidential candidate FranÃ§ois Hollande told France 2 TV that while he doesn't want to eliminate nuclear power, he does want to diversify the country's electricity sources.
"I'm focussed over 15 to 20 years on reducing the share of nuclear power in the electricity supply from 75 to 50%," Hollande says, "while at the same time increasing renewable energy."
Many Greens say that doesn't go far enough. But just the fact that a leading presidential candidate is talking about cutting back on nuclear power is a big change here.
Still, electricity analyst Manuel Baritaud at the International Energy Agency in Paris doesn't expect France to follow the lead of some of its neighbors and go nuclear-free anytime soon. Baritaud says a recent French government report calculated that phasing out nuclear would cost more, create energy instability and boost greenhouse gas emissions. He says the report's main conclusion is that "the optimal trajectory concerning nuclear in France is to operate the existing fleet of reactors until the end of their technical and economic life."
For his part, current French President Nicolas Sarkozy wants to extend the life of those plants from 40 years to 60–way longer than any commercial nuclear plant has ever run.
But Yves Marignac, of the non-profit Negawatt Institute, has a very different vision. A negawatt–a term coined by U-S clean energy guru Amory Lovins–is a megawatt of electricity that can be saved through conservation. Marignac says France has the potential to "shift to a fully sustainable, renewable-based energy system by 2050."
The government's big energy report, Marignac says, pays scant attention to the huge potential for reducing energy demand.
"Two thirds of the answer (is) the demand side, mostly energy efficiency, not only in electricity but in transport, in houses, heating systems," Marignac says.
Of course such a transition would be hugely expensive. But Marignac points out that the alternative–extending the nation's nuclear fleet for 20 years–is itself expected to cost upwards of $70 billion.
In a country so deeply invested in nuclear power, it's likely that any dramatic shift won't come soon, if at all. But Greenpeace's Sophia Majnoni says a lot could hinge on the upcoming election.
"If it's Sarkozy who is re-elected, I will say it will be very difficult to have an anti-nuclear movement in France. If the left-wing party wins, then a debate will start on the first closure of a nuclear power plant. And it will be the first time in France."