Farewell Fessenheim, finally

The long fight to close French nuclear plant ends in relief rather than victory

By Linda Pentz Gunter

France’s two oldest reactors are finally closing. But their waste inventories sit perilously in pools adjacent to a canal, in a seismic area and on top of Europe’s largest groundwater source. Consequently, the Stop Fessenheim movement isn’t closing its doors.

On a sunny October day in 2009, a French border town was put under siege. There was no virus, but there was an invasion of sorts.

Protesters against the continued operation of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant were streaming into town. French authorities weren’t worried about their own citizens, but what they really feared were “rioting” Germans.

We were in Colmar, a town in Alsace, a region that has historically been a source of conflict between France and Germany for more than a century, changing hands several times until finally becoming French again in the waning days of World War II.

Possibly unaware of this, but maybe guilty of watching too many news clips of German protesters at Gorleben, the French police locked Colmar down. 

The original protest site in the central Place Rapp was moved to one on the fringes of town adjacent to the station.

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The German protesters turned out not to be as fierce as French authorities feared. (Photo: Linda Pentz Gunter)

Helicopters circled overhead, police with dogs (yes, Alsatians) blocked intersections, and trucks with the word “horses” plastered on them idled in side streets.

On the morning of the protest, the only place to get a cup of coffee was in the local butcher shop. Everything else was closed. When the French close their cafes, you know something serious is going on.

Five thousand people turned up, peaceful, wearing yellow, singing songs and carrying signs and generally shouting “hooray for our side” as per tradition. 

And then, despite all the security, two protesters appeared on the roof of the bank building and unfurled a giant banner that read: “Nuclear kills the future.” All the policemen and dogs and horses stood by, well, sheepishly, to mix animal metaphors.

Finally, last month, one of the two Fessenheim reactors — the oldest and smallest in France — closed. The second one will shut on June 30. The plant was originally commissioned in 1977.

As Deutsche-Welle reported, “German and Swiss officials have long demanded that French energy officials close the aging Fessenheim nuclear power plant, which is located on the border of France near Germany and Switzerland, near Freiburg in southwestern Germany.”

But the French have demanded it, too, not “officials” but honest citizens who called out the plant’s fragility, faults and failings for decades, to little avail. 

In France, if you are anti-nuclear, the chance of getting any press at all, let alone positive press, is slim to none. French anti-nuclear activists have labored in ignominy for decades. 

Consequently, as one of their number, Jean-Luc Thierry put it, the closure of Fessenheim was “more of a relief than a victory,” a bitter-sweet celebration that passed without cracking open champagne.

The lack of festivities is in part because of what the French government has in store for the decommissioned Fessenheim site. The new “Technocentre”  proposes to “recycle” metal from the dismantled plant, and from others around Europe, into everyday household items like casseroles and toasters and stoves and boxsprings. It’s the French government’s twisted way of recategorizing nuclear as “renewable.”


The Fessenheim reactors sit below grade, unprotected, next to a canal. (Photo: Florival fr/Wikimedia Commons)

And the sobriety amongst French activists is also due to a healthy skepticism, if not outright doubt, that EDF — overseen by a too compliant nuclear safety authority — will conduct the plant decommissioning with any effective level of safety measures in place.

Furthermore, members of the broad Stop Fessenheim coalition quickly read between the lines and noted that EDF expects French taxpayers to pay for the electricity not produced by the closed reactors, all the way to 2041.

Books have been written, literally, about all that is wrong with the Fessenheim nuclear plant, which was built in a seismic zone, setting off decades of citizen activism in France as well as neighboring Germany and Switzerland. The plant has never achieved compliance with seismic safety rules.

Even more rashly, the plant was built at 8.5 meters below the water level of the Grand Canal of Alsace, separated only by a dike and at constant risk of inundation. And, despite its vulnerability to flooding, leaks and spills — not to mention meltdown — it sits atop the largest groundwater source in Europe.

Just months after our demonstration in Colmar, in December 2009, the plant came close to a major disaster when a loss of coolant accident occurred at the plant. This came on the heels of countless incidents and safety shutdowns at the site.

The plant is rife with embrittlement and fragility problems. There are no emergency backup diesel generators. Fessenheim 2 was one of many reactors to experience excess carbon sequestration in its steam generator, a result of faulty parts from the Le Creusot forge, installed in numerous reactors, likely including some in the US.

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A huge inventory of waste will remain at the Fessenheim site. (Protesters’ symbolic waste canisters: photo by Linda Pentz Gunter)

The plants could easily have closed years ago, without any hardship for consumers. As André Hatz, the president of Stop Fessenheim explained in a recent television interview, “both reactors have often gone down at the same time and I can assure you of one thing, no resident of Alsace has ever lit a candle.”

But the French “nuclear park” remained afloat, despite promises in 2012 by previous French president François Hollande, to close Fessenheim in 2017 and reduce the country’s reliance on nuclear power.

Even when closed, the dangers won’t be over. Fessenheim has produced an inventory of lethal radioactive waste perilously stored on the banks of the adjacent canal, unprotected from attack or sabotage.

So needless to say, Stop Fessenheim isn’t stopping.

Instead, their vigilance must continue well past the June closure because, as the group said in a press release:

“Around 216 metric tons of radioactive waste will sit in cooling ponds at the site for at least the next three years;

“Fifty six dangerous reactors will continue operating in France along with four in neighboring Switzerland; and

“Neither the problems surrounding decommissioning nor radioactive waste management have been solved, and may never be.”

At least seven million people live within a 100 kilometer radius of Fessenheim. Now they can breathe a small sigh of relief, as the risk to their health and safety will drop by several orders of magnitude. But decommissioning is expected to last until 2040. And while the radioactive waste remains on site, no one in the region can truly sleep soundly.

Headline photo of shut Fessenheim protest at Colmar by the author.

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