In France, as expected, the political debate is heated, as it is the country most reliant on nuclear energy in the world. It has 58 reactors for a population of 66.9 million and gets 73% of its electricity from nuclear power.


It might be safe to assume that mostly everyone in France is conscious that nuclear power is their main source of energy. It might also be safe to speculate that they’ve read, heard on TV or discussed about its many dangers. What everyone might not know however is where the infrastructure is located and at what costs. At ATLAS OF PLACES we believe infrastructure is a hidden, but crucial tool of analysis, a gateway to understanding our modern society. As progressivist, concerned and curious people, we tried to investigate this nuclear gamble and contribute to the ongoing political debate. We started, as we usually do, by collecting data, reading and researching. Throughout this article we will show you the various locations of France’s nuclear infrastructure, through maps and satellite imagery, hoping to give one a little more insight on the current situation.


At some point in the 1980s there was an effort from the French government to sensitise the population on nuclear infrastructure. As the backbone of modern development, it made sense to explain how most of our daily tasks were, one way or another, connected to this new method of energy production. It involved implicating architects (like Claude Parent) into the design of these new infrastructures and making sure the public could access, visit and understand the infrastructure. Unfortunately in April 1986, the Chernobyl disaster occurred and the whole public relation stunt was a lot harder to explain and maintain.

However, regardless of their dangers, these infrastructures have not ceased to exist and are very much part of our territory and contemporary landscape. There has been a lot of talk recently, particularly around the French elections – when people usually wake up politically – about the disadvantages and dangers of nuclear energy. Like many other questions related to infrastructure, this debate is crucial and should lie at the forefront of our political scene : as we are well aware of the irreversible damages that can arouse from this technology (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima disaster).

In France, as expected, the political debate is heated, as it is the country most reliant on nuclear energy in the world. It has 58 reactors for a population of 66.9 million and gets 73% of its electricity from nuclear power. In recent years, in other countries like India and China, there have been violent demonstrations against the building of new nuclear power stations. Germany plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022 (although their coal alternative is also highly disputed), Switzerland by 2034. The US has frozen its nuclear programme, the Italians have voted no to nuclear power in a referendum and many Turks oppose their government’s nuclear power plans. So, luckily for us, the general trend seems to be turning away from nuclear.

Could France continue to remain an exception to the rule ? Initially France’s nuclear sector was organised by the state as a collaboration between Electricité de France-Gaz de France (EDF-GDF), then the sole operator and customer, and its suppliers. Today, however, it is in the hands of a number of large companies in fierce competition on the international markets. The first one is Areva, the world leader in nuclear reactor design and the supply of nuclear fuel. Areva is implicated in a vast number of scandals in Africa, especially when it comes to its Uranium mines (see this brilliant piece of journalism from ARTE). The second one is Alstom, the number one supplier of peripheral equipment (turbines) and the third one is EDF, the world’s leading nuclear power producer (also implicated in numerous scandals around the construction of the new Flamanville EPR reactor). EDF is also a provider (it sells the energy it produces) and a designer and builder of power stations.

The question one should thus ask himself is should we let the governance of our fragile nuclear infrastructure be handled by profit oriented corporations that have proved to us, again and again, that people and nature are expendable in the face of the market ? Because, even if we face an uphill battle to bring this debate to the forefront of the political scene, then there is also the white elephant of nuclear production : radioactive waste. What do we do with waste that will outlive us and most future generations ? Overall the global cost of nuclear infrastructure is still very much unclear. There is constantly a risk of another major accident, with, as usual in this political context, consequences to be payed by the taxpayer.

Now, we don’t believe in going back to the Medieval Ages and we strongly believe in technology, nature and society working side by side to reach an equalitarian and durable system in which we can all thrive, but nuclear is obviously too disproportionate for all these three domains to cohabit gently. Renewable energies are nice, but highly dependant on climate and irregular in terms of production. Today’s society cannot rely entirely on them, except if we decide to change our consumption habits drastically… This should of course be the priority but our politics are not at this level yet. So what about alternatives ? Germany went back to it’s old coal infrastructure, a hard but necessary decision if you wish to push away from nuclear. But is that any better, both in terms of public health and environmental measures ? Some will say yes, some will say no. In the end, the debate is endless and maybe useless.

But what about Thorium ? I’m sure a lot of you have not heard about this alternative and the ones who have will say : why is it any different from Uranium ? The first difference between Thorium and Uranium is their availability on Earth : there are four times more Thorium than Uranium. If one almost always finds Thorium where Uranium is mined, it is also systematically associated with all the deposits of rare earths. It is also found in granitic formations : Norway has the largest reserve of Thorium in Europe, followed by Greenland. Thorium and Uranium having been created together in the cauldron of a supernova, they are found in the planetary crusts of the Earth, the Moon, Mars…

The second difference lies in the level of physical peculiarities. Natural uranium found on Earth is divided into two types, two different “isotopes" : uranium-235, which is fissile, that is, capable of fissioning when struck by a neutron and thus releasing energy nuclear and uranium 238, which is “fertile" : struck by a neutron, it does not fission, it absorbs it like a Pac-Man, then, through the instability of the nucleus, it decays, and becomes a new element, plutonium 239, which is fissile. Thorium exists only as a fertile element, the Thorium 232. But if a source of external neutrons bombards it, it transforms first into Protactinium 233 and then into Uranium 233 which is fissile to it.

This small but very important difference explains why, at the beginning of the nuclear era, the Uranium/Plutonium (U-Pu) cycle, much more "direct", was preferred to the Thorium/Uranium233 cycle (Th-U233). A fortiori because the aim was not to develop a new energy, but to produce military material.

In a conventional reactor, Thorium, in the form of a solid fuel, has a limited interest : it makes the fuel more stable, and slightly reduces the formation of minor actinides, these very heavy and highly radioactive elements for periods up to to 400’000 years. But it is in a reactor, with molten salts, that it gives all its potential. The MSRs (Molten Salt Reactor) know how to completely "burn" the minor actinides. But independently of the reactor used, the Thorium cycle produces fewer minor actinides than the U-Pu cycle.

All of this is quite technical but crucial to understanding why our nuclear production is the way it is. China has already begun developing MSRs in the hopes of pushing out Uranium based reactors as a whole. Maybe other countries will follow soon… The maps and satellite imagery below will not provide answers to where we should establish these MSRs or in what time frame but hopefully they will inform on where the current issues are located, the necessity to remediate them and what questions to ask when a political decision will need to be made.

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