ONLINE - Joseph Bohling: The Electro-Nuclear Switch: Confronting the Crisis of Fossil Capitalism in France, 1969-1974
25. März | 17:00
Today, France is invariably associated with nuclear power. Yet explanations for how this association came to be tend to be unpersuasive. On the one hand, a pro-nuclear camp suggests that, in response to the 1973 “oil shock,” France’s visionary engineering corps planned the development of a massive electro-nuclear infrastructure—an “electro-nuclear switch”—as a way to liberate France from imported fossil fuels. Today, this camp’s technological triumphalism continues, given that it sees nuclear energy as a way to address climate change. On the other hand, an anti-nuclear camp claims that, following the 1973 oil crisis, a monolithic, growth-oriented state imposed nuclear power on France while ignoring safety and environmental warnings and denying democratic debate about nuclear technology. Despite these competing views on whether this nuclear transition was a triumph or a disaster, both sides assume the almighty power of the “nucleocrats,” which elides the specific historical contexts in which energy choices were made.
Government and energy company archives reveal a contested, contingent, and dynamic story about how the electro-nuclear switch came to be. France’s path to nuclear power was neither linear nor inevitable. Archives highlight three important aspects to the onset of the nuclear transition. First, the nuclear energy program accelerated in 1969 as a result of a series of social and ecological problems afflicting the French energy market instead of as a direct consequence of the international oil shock of 1973. Second, the program accelerated to support the French oil industry in its dealings with the Arab oil states and the American oil multinationals, not to replace oil outright. Third, it accelerated to boost a campaign initiated by Électricité de France (EDF), the country’s public electric utility, to position nuclear energy as a way to simultaneously drive economic growth and combat coal- and oil-induced air pollution, rather than treating economic competitiveness and environmental protection as two conflicting aims.
Recently, historians of energy and the Anthropocene have centered their attention on the social, environmental, and political implications of fossil fuel transitions, which puts the Anglosphere at the center of these analyses. We know less about the making of alternative energy paradigms that some other industrialized democracies have pursued. Since the late 1960s, France has dramatically reduced its fossil fuel consumption and now has a relatively strong record on carbon emissions, but its continued commitment to nuclear power presents serious risks for the natural environment and for humanity as a whole. Nuclear energy is seen as a major contributor to the Anthropocene, but it is also known to check Anthropogenic climate change. The story of France’s electro-nuclear switch is an illuminating case study of the possibilities and limits of transitioning to a low-carbon society.
Joseph Bohling is Associate Professor of History at Portland State University in the United States. He has recently held visiting fellowships at Sciences Po in Paris and the Remarque Institute at New York University. Bohling is a specialist of twentieth-century France with a particular focus on political economy. His first book, The Sober Revolution: Appellation Wine and the Transformation of France, was published by Cornell University Press in 2018. His current book project is Power to the Republic: The Oil Crisis and France’s Pursuit of Energy Independence since 1969.
Discussion with Jakob Vogel, director from the Centre Marc Bloch
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Gilles.Lepesant ( at ) sciencespo.fr