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Will the Ill-fated Super-Phoenix Rise Again?

June 2, 1992

PARIS (AP) _ The Super-Phoenix fast-breeder reactor began as a great project to demonstrate France’s nuclear savoir-faire. It eventually cost $5 billion and one human life, and may end up being shut.

The fate of the plant will be decided within the next few weeks, and so much is at stake - money, politics, national pride - that the decision will be made by Premier Pierre Beregovoy himself.

In July, an independent watchdog committee will render its decision on the safety of what was meant to be the world’s first commercial fast-breeder reactor, a 252-foot concrete tower looming over the broad, green Rhone River valley outside Lyon.

Armed with the report, Beregovoy will decide the fate of the Super-Phoenix.

Beregovoy is under pressure to meet the demands of environmentalists, who want the plant shut down. If the government complies, they could throw their growing political influence behind the declining Socialist Party in next year’s parliamentary elections.

But that would mean giving the brush-off to the powerful nuclear industry, the longtime bedfellow of successive French governments.

The government has floated the compromise notion of retooling the reactor into what it calls an ″incinerator,″ converting plutonium into fuel that could be used in conventional reactors.

That would be a step down from the goal of operating the firt commercial fast-breeder. Breeder reactors produce more fissionable material than they consume, by directing neutrons from the reaction into quantities of non- fissionable material, which then transmute into fissionable atoms.

A series of technological failures has kept the reactor working at full power only 174 days out of the last seven years.

The latest shutdown dates to July 1990 when sodium leaked from the cooling system into the reactor core, threatening to block circulation within the reactor and causing an explosion.

With the decision only weeks away, environmentalists have renewed their attack against the reactor, ″a financial abyss that poses continuing safety problems.″

Speaking privately, they say the government had promised to meet two key demands - the halting of nuclear testing in the South Pacific and the closing of the Super-Phoenix.

Beregovoy, in his first speech to parliament as premier, announced in April a moratorium on nuclear testing.

But the government also must answer to the formidable nuclear industry, a handful of interlocked state-controlled monopolies run by a small group of influential people, many of whom graduated from the small, elite Ecole des Mines.

Even the industry regulators are members of the club; they rely on advice from the industry itself and report to technocrats in the ministry of industry, who in turn supervise the state-owned utility Electricite de France.

This group has managed to construct 54 working reactors in only 27 years, and France now generates 80 percent of its electricity from the atom. But EDF also has amassed a $41 billion debt, a sum larger than the national debt of some small nations.

Meanwhile, electricity sales have failed to grow as expected.

Opposition to the reactor is not new. Thirty thousand protesters battled police at the site in 1977 and one protestor was killed. Five years later, militant ecologists fired five rockets at the plant.

Despite the opposition and technical failures in 1987 and 1990, the Super- Phoenix may yet rise again.

″If we want to market fast-breeders by 2010, then we must study them now,″ said Minister of Industry Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Adds Minister of Research Hubert Curien: ″If the safety authorities give their okay, I am in favor of restarting the plant. It is an essential tool.″

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