Augustin’s Research Blog #6 Public reaction to nuclear energy development and the end of the coal sector in France

Public reaction to nuclear energy development and the end of the coal sector in France


            Although nuclear development was heavily supported by the French government, French citizens were not always so supportive. From the opening of Chinon in 1963, the first nuclear power plant in France, to the decommission of the Fessenheim power plant in 2020, nuclear has been a subject of excitation, curiosity but also fear, anxiety and controverse. The public opinion on nuclear has kept on fluctuating, influenced by opposition movements and by pro-nuclear campaigns.

            In 1969, the first nuclear incident in France happened in Saint Laurent. Although  this accident didn’t startle neither journalists nor public opinion, it proved the point of anti-nuclear movements: there is a risk in nuclear energy [1]. From then in the 1970s, opposition movements started to appear, fostering demonstrations and other perspectives on nuclear energy. Some populations felt anxious because of the lack of information on nuclear while it was being developed quickly. To local French people, nuclear in its beginning felt like a “technocratic ideal” pursued by elites, far from common sense [2]. Records from INA indicate that people living near plants are especially afraid of the impact nuclear could have on future generations and on water sources around the plant [2]. In 1977, during a demonstration in Creys-Malville against the new type of reactors Superphenix in development, a manifestant was killed by a grenade confronting the police. This made nuclear very unpopular as public opinion rose turn against this project (surveys estimate there were approximately 53% of people against after the incident) [3]. As a response, the government halted the Superphenix project; it resumed a few years later but was never achieved.

              When the Three Mile Island incident happened in 1979 in the United States, reactions were quick in France too. Medias were very quick to get information about what was happening, experts were summoned to understand what the risks were and if it could also happen in France, and people’s interest was high overall. Because the worst was avoided during this incident, the potential consequences of the worst-case scenario were hidden to the public at the time [4]. The accident revived some manifestations nevertheless, especially around the Fessenheim plant. It is true that American and French reactors were based on the same technology, but experts mentioned that the construction methods were different, although they also mentioned this didn’t prevent possible accidents to happen in France too [4]. The government also reacted to this incident and run simulations to see what could happen if the accident took place in France. Disaster simulation exercises were later implemented in response to this event, but the government also chose to keep its nuclear disaster response procedure secret from the public, despite being asked by ecologists and environmental associations not to do so [4].

              Even though French and Soviet nuclear power plants were different, the 1986 Chernobyl disaster had a very negative impact on French nuclear. Chernobyl was closer to France and caused more damage than the Three Mile Island incident, but what made it very infamous was the French government’s reaction to the disaster. To protect the nuclear industry and avoid ecologists from gaining more power, the government acknowledged the gravity of the accident but ensured that the radioactive cloud would not reach France and stop at the border thanks to an anticyclone. This was a lie proved wrong by later studies showing that radioactive fallouts were found everywhere in France after the accident. This led to a lot of distrust against the government and especially concerning nuclear.

              However, the real impact of nuclear in France was probably the one concerning employment. When the first nuclear plants were opened, local people and worker trade unions were afraid that nuclear factories will impact the local economy and reduce employment possibilities, maybe even discourage people from settling in nearby cities. To that, the government responded that on the contrary, nuclear factories would bring more opportunities and that everything would be made to ensure current jobs would not be affected [2]. Nuclear indeed created jobs by opening up a new sector and opportunities around it. In fact, the Tricastain uranium enrichment factory in Pierrelatte attracted many people and industries after its construction [2]. But if the government could ensure most jobs will remain unaffected, it couldn’t ensure that employment in other energy sectors would undeniably be impacted by the rise of nuclear. If electricity could be supplied by nuclear, then other electricity sources wouldn’t be needed as much as before.

              This was especially the case for coal. Essential source of energy since the 18th century with the discovery of coal mines in the Nord Pas de Calais, later in Lorraine and in the Loire region, coal represented 98% of the energy demand in 1913 [5]. It was essential to the economy of those regions and many people were attracted due to job opportunities. Because of the damage dealt by WWI, coal mines were not as profitable as before. Because coal resources were also becoming limited, the government aimed to replace coal by hydropower as much as possible. The coal sector was impacted by these reforms in most coal-producing regions, effect worsened by the WWII. After the war, the government reformed the sector by creating the public entity Charbonnages de France:

  • All coal factories were nationalised and incorporated in Charbonnages de France.
  • A special status was created for the 360 000 miners employed by Charbonnages de France [5].


Image. Coal basins and coal mining regions in France
Source :


               A lot of coal factories incorporated in Charbonnages de France were already in the red and suffered from competition. To solve the problem of competition between coal production in European countries, French Prime minister Robert Schuman initiated the ESCS (European Coal and Steel Community) with West Germany, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in 1951. It expanded into the ECC (European Economic Community) in 1957 and later became the current EU.

              However, this didn’t stop French coal from becoming more and more unreliable. Due to many ups and downs in the 1960s, the rise of hydropower and the beginning of the nuclear plan, coal progressively became a secondary energy source [6]. Expectations for coal were lowered, the sector activity was reduced everywhere except in Lorraine and in Nord Pas de Calais, and in 1967, miner’s retirement was advanced to 30 years of experience while reconversion was strongly encouraged [5]. While nuclear was developed at a fast pace, interest in coal was decreasing. Nuclear energy definitely accelerated the decline of coal energy in France, but it seemed like decline was eventually bound to happen anyway. Knowing this, Charbonnages de France was left with the very complicated task of programming the end of its own activity while ensuring its own employees would not suffer from the impacts. As a result, SOFIREM was created in 1967 [6]. The company’s goal was to industrialize mining regions: it would bring more reconversion opportunities and create local backup jobs to replace jobs in the coal industry. SOFIREM established some agreement with local industries like steel works, car manufacturers, cauldron making, textile or construction industries for roads, ports, telecommunications or trainlines to welcome some of its employees. EDF also retrieved some miners. DATAR, a government organism whose role was to structure the territorial development of French regions also played an important role in attracting industries, especially in the Nord Pas de Calais [5].

             When the oil crisis happened in 1973 and 1979, only coal mines in Nord Pas de Calais and Lorraine were still running. The oil crisis revived interest in coal, but this interest didn’t last very long because foreign coal was still more profitable [6]. In the Nord Pas de Calais region especially, coal mines were becoming unprofitable and sector activity had to be reduced in response to this and mining accidents. Industrialization efforts accelerated to allow more reconversion opportunities and maintain economic activity. At this point, Lorraine progressively became the main, soon to be only region for coal industry. This eventually happened in 1990 when the last mine in Nord Pas de Calais was closed [6]. The final chapter for coal mining in France started when the “Pacte Charbonnier” (literally Coal Agreement in English) was signed in 1994, anticipating the end of coal before 2005. The “Pacte Charbonnier” also planned the retirement or reconversion of the 3000 remaining miners before that date [5]. Retirement age was advanced again to allow people to retire after 25 years of experience or 45 years in total while keeping their status advantages, 80% of their former salary and being rewarded for their effort in supplying energy in crucial times since WWII [6]. This way, older workers could retire and ensure younger workers to keep on working as long as possible. The end of French coal officially happened in 2004 when the last coal mine closed in Lorraine [6].

            What is left after all these changes ? Today, coal industry in France is very limited and only exists through imports; the last plants are to be closed before 2025. Coal shaped French history for a long time and its heritage can be seen throughout the country. Some of it has evolved to become museums or diversified to other sectors like the engineering schools group “Les Mines”, originally solely focussed on mining industry engineering but today offering general engineer formations (including nuclear for example). It could seem that coal was progressively replaced by nuclear in energy production and employment in coal was progressively transferred to industries, but this switch was not perfect. Charbonnnages de France did an excellent job to amort the end of coal ensuring that no employees were left behind but couldn’t prevent the closure of small local businesses and small industries due to the loss of dynamism. There were a lot of local services indirectly related to coal that new industries were not able to maintain. In many villages and small cities of former coal regions, implanted industries represent most of employment opportunities today: job diversity was severely reduced which severely impacted the cities’ attractivity. In most severe cases, implanted industries became loss-making and had to move from small cities to industrial zones in bigger cities of the region, leaving the former cities with very little activity. Even if the situation could be worse because of all the efforts put into reconversion and territorial planning by Charbonnages de France, SOFIREM and DATAR, most coal regions are among the poorest French regions today, with higher unemployment than average. As for nuclear, the 2011 Fukushima disaster also triggered anti-nuclear demonstrations in France, but it seems that public opinion has slowly been getting past this accident. In 2021, 59% of French citizens are now in favour of nuclear according to the IRSN [7]. Interestingly, people living near power plants tend to have a very positive opinion of nuclear: when surveyed, people living near the Tricastain and La Hague power plants seem to be slightly more pro-nuclear than the average. Opinions do not quite follow political orientations: various opinions can be heard among political parties, ecologists and members of the current government. Overall, while most French citizens acknowledge the importance of nuclear plants in providing energy and essential services today, they also know these plants are approaching their end life. If transition to other energies were to happen again in the future, lessons from past transitions should be remembered.