* Corps des Mines school trains France's top state engineers
* France launches first public debate on nuclear energy
* France's ASN used Fukushima to "purge" Chernobyl lie
By Muriel Boselli
PARIS, Nov 29 For decades, the elite engineers
turned out by Paris's grand Corps des Mines academy were
faithful followers of the pro-atomic creed that transformed
their country into the most nuclear-reliant nation in the world.
But a new generation of Mines graduates is starting to
question that policy. It is a change of mindset that could aid
efforts by President Francois Hollande to cut reliance on
nuclear power from 75 percent to 50 percent of the electricity
mix by 2025.
"Noone at the Corps des Mines questions the need for nuclear
power in the energy mix, however the younger generation is more
concerned about the environment and leaving room for other
energy sources," said Francois Bordes, a 40-year old Corps des
Mines graduate who advises businesses on energy efficiency.
Bordes is part of a generation of Mines engineers who
believe atomic energy has a role to play - but not the dominant
one given it by elders who helped build the world's
second-largest nuclear programme after the United States.
"There is a generation gap between Mines members who had key
jobs during the three booming post-war decades and those who
started out in the past 15 years," Bordes added.
The Corps des Mines was founded in 1794 to turn France's
now-exhausted coal mines to the advantage of Europe's industrial
revolution. But after World War Two it won a new raison d'etre
when Corps des Mines engineer Pierre Guillaumat worked with De
Gaulle to create the state-funded CEA nuclear research body.
It became an example of French post-war "dirigisme" - the
policy under which the state seeks to direct the economy -
determining how nuclear energy was used for civilian and
military purposes, with the development of France's atomic bomb.
"A RISKIER WORLD"
The construction of 58 nuclear reactors prompted successive
French governments to invest massively in electric heating to
absorb the supplies. France became the world's top electricity
Now some Mines graduates say the heavy dependence on one
energy form means France struggles to cope with seasonal demand
"We believed for too long that nuclear energy was cheap and
that we could, for example, massively develop electric heating
as a result. This is nonsensical," said Vincent Le Biez, a 27-
year-old Mines graduate.
Alumni include Anne Lauvergeon, ex-head of nuclear giant
Areva, current head of France's nuclear energy watchdog ASN,
Pierre-Franck Chevet, his predecessor Andre-Claude Lacoste, and
Jacques Repussard of the IRSN nuclear safety institute.
The nuclear industry's image was tainted in the eyes of the
French public after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, when
the nuclear watchdog insisted radioactive contamination from the
accident had not spread to French territory.
In fact it released vast quantities of radioactive material
over the whole of Europe and France was no exception. For many
French, the episode created the perception of an invisible
pro-nuclear lobby pushing its interests against those of the
France's nuclear lobby is hard to pin down because it is
intricate. Its critics tend to be anti-nuclear NGOs or green
politicians with no ministerial experience. A rare exception is
Corinne Lepage, former ecology minister under Alain Juppe's
government between 1995 and 1997.
Lepage said the lobby had strong leverage in parliament.
"There is at the parliament a powerful group of
parliamentarians and senators who are pro-nuclear, with some
formerly from EDF," she said, referring to the state utility
that is Europe's biggest electricity producer. "They are so
close to the (nuclear) lobby that they are called 'EDF allies'."
Chernobyl was for many a wake-up call to the dangers of
nuclear energy, an alarm which sounded again with Japan's
Fukushima nuclear disaster last year.
"Graduates who started out working in the 1990s are more
worried about a riskier world where no technology is perfect,"
Hollande's government is due to shut France's oldest reactor
by the end of 2016 and launched on Thursday a national debate on
energy that will for the first time include discussion of the
role of atomic power.
That debate will help shape a framework energy law in 2013
that will define how to cut France's nuclear capacity, boost
renewable energy and lift energy efficiency. With France
currently shunning shale gas for ecological reasons, nuclear
advocates will argue that French industry simply cannot do
without cheap nuclear power.
France is slowly embracing heavily-subsidised renewable
energies, such as wind and sun power, but they only make up 13
percent of the energy mix, far behind Germany and Spain and well
below the 23-percent target set by former President Nicolas
Sarkozy for 2020.
The change in mindset is reflected at the ASN. In contrast
to its handling of Chernobyl, it was the first agency worldwide
to classify the Fukushima accident at the top end of the
international nuclear and radiological event scale (INES).
ASN activated an unprecedented communication plan designed
to provide France and the world with an up-to-the-minute
independent view of the unfolding event.
"There was in the mind of a number of people at the French
nuclear safety authority, including myself, the idea that we had
to purge Chernobyl," said Lacoste, who retired this month after
20 years as ASN chief.
Yet any move away from nuclear is likely to be a subtle
shift rather than a sharp jolt. While the oldest nuclear reactor
is due to be shut, there are no plans to halt construction of
Areva's next-generation reactor in northwestern France.
"The shift announced by the French President will not affect
the technical expertise of French operators EDF and Areva,"
Jean-Paul Tran Thiet, an energy lawyer for White & Case said.
But the cooling of France's ardour for nuclear could give
pause for thought to others such as South Africa, still
hesitating to build new reactors.
"This decision can also be perceived as a weakening in
confidence of the nuclear power sector, which could have a
negative impact on foreign buyers," Tran Thiet added.