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France builds nuclear future

Mark Mardell | 06:00 UK time, Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Flamanville, Normandy, northern France.Construction at Flamanville nuclear site

Rounding the coast road, as blue-green breakers crash against the dark beaches, you can see a vast building site. It perches on the edge of the sea, on top of old industry, for here there used to be a granite mine and and an undersea iron mine. A few hundred yards out to sea there is a paler expanse of water in the shape of a flattened oval, while overhead scores of gulls hover and swoop on some tasty morsel below.

The site itself resounds with clatters and bangs, men in hard hats wield lengthy pieces of metal, while very tall cranes swing overhead. Two of the cranes are almost entirely encircled in huge concrete tubes, taller than a tower clock.

These oddities are connected, for this is not just any old building site. This is Flamanville Three, where France's latest nuclear reactors are being built. The two cranes wear concrete jackets, to make sure that in the unlikely event they fell over, they wouldn't crash into either of the live reactors next door. And the seabirds are scoffing algae and other goodies forced to the surface by the pressure of the water flowing from the pressurised water reactors. Mark Mardell visiting Flamanville site

I am here filming for a Newsnight piece that will go out at the end of the month, on the European Union's energy policy. Nuclear power is big in France. It generates a whacking 80% of the country's electricity and President Sarkozy is keen to export the power to neighbouring countries like Spain, which won't build any more nuclear plants themselves.

On the ground before me is the outline in rusty-looking steel of two European Pressurised Reactors, which the designers say are "safer, more environmentally friendly and more powerful" than previous models. The plan is that they will come on stream in 2012. It's possible Britain will decided to buy the EPR as well.

From the outline on the ground I can see that the space where the concrete will be poured is very large, perhaps as thick as two or three houses. This the manufacturers claim is what makes it so safe: the concrete shell, they boast, could take the impact of a large plane. They also say that, in what they describe as the very unlikely event of a Chernobyl-style meltdown, all the radioactive fuel would flow back into the centre and into a cooling "swimming pool".Anti-nuclear rally in Paris

They certainly haven't persuaded all the locals. There is a big anti-nuclear banner hanging from one of the nearby houses. I meet a protester from the area later at an anti-nuclear rally in Paris. He tells me he's not just worried about safety but all the heavy militaristic security that comes with a nuclear plant. People mill around before the march, wearing radiation suits and masks and carrying pictures of children with horrific injuries, although I can't see whether these are victims of Chernobyl or Hiroshima or just generic images of the sort of thing they believe could happen. These people are passionate and demand that France abandon its nuclear programme in favour of renewable energy like wind, wave and solar power and cutting down on consumption.

But most French don't seem disturbed by their reliance on nuclear energy, particularly at a time when the intellectual fashion is swinging back that way, and surely France has gone too far down the track for any change to be politically possible?

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