Nuclear Waters on Holiday: Power Plants along the Autoroute du Soleil

It is the summer holiday season! A period in which people try to relax, de-connect, and forget about work for a while. Yet, work sometimes has its funny ways of following you.

My family and I have the tradition of spending our holidays at the Côte d’Azur in the South of France. We load the car as full as we can and hit the road for a full day (normally by night or on a Sunday to avoid the traffic jams).

Since this year, the first year of my PhD (which is about the global governance of water-related nuclear risks), this drive has become a bit more interesting than before. After you have passed Lyon, the highway to the Côte d’Azur, popularly called the “Autoroute du Soleil”, runs through the Rhône valley, where a lot of nuclear power plants are located.

It reminded me of course of Sara Pritchard’s book ‘Confluence’, which tells the history of the transformations of the Rhône during the post-war period. It is a key publication for our project. Not only does it theorise the connection between technology and the environment, it is also (and especially) a powerful account of the human use of water and the management and conflicts of interest that this entails.

Nuclear power plants are one of the key users of the river. Not less than 6 nuclear power plants have been constructed on the banks of the Rhône. ‘Confluence’ describes the controversies this entailed and the effects this had on the river. Even if the scope of nuclear energy in France is huge, 6 nuclear power plants along one river is still a enormous concentration.

And interestingly, there is no better way to observe this than driving past them. When you leave Lyon, you almost immediately see the power plant of Cruas, which is a bit hidden in a valley but still visible from the highway. From there it only takes an extra 45 minutes to see the next nuclear power plant, Tricastin, located right next to the highway. From Tricastin the next nuclear power plant, Marcoule, is not even 30 (!) minutes away. The “Autoroute du Soleil” is really an “Autoroute Nucléaire as well.”

The Tricastin nuclear power plant, seen from the “Autoroute du Soleil.” It has four reactors and is located very close to both the nuclear power stations of Cruas and Marcoule. Due to record temperatures this summer in France, EDF closed down the power plant temporarily.

This is perhaps just a geeky enjoyment during a tedious 14-hour drive, and maybe at best a nice anecdote to tell my fellow nuclear scholars. Yet, it has also left me with some questions. Is it actually safe to build nuclear power plants that close to each other? Is there enough water for them to use? Does the water not heat up too rapidly? And does this heavy nuclearisation of rivers not render nuclear power more vulnerable (and thus more risky) to droughts and heat waves? This year again, Electricité de France (EDF, France’s energy operator) closed down several reactors because the cooling water was diminishing and heating up, including two along the Rhône.

I cannot help but wonder whether this was at some point on the political agenda of either the French government or an international organisation such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, Euratom, or the Nuclear Energy Agency. In any case, it is something I hope to find out in my PhD!

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