Strasbourg (AFP)

After years of debate that have made its closure a sea serpent of French political life, the reactor No. 1 of the Fessenheim nuclear power plant must be definitively shut down on Saturday, the first step on the long road to dismantling.

Commissioned in 1977, the dean of the French power plants in operation will have known six presidents of the Republic, from Valéry Giscard d'Estaing to Emmanuel Macron, via François Hollande, who sealed his fate by promising to close it in 2011, but also hunger strikes and countless demonstrations by opponents.

Almost a decade after François Hollande's promise, reactor 1 of the Alsatian power plant must be shut down at 2.30 a.m. Saturday, before no.2 on 30 June. These dates were ratified on Wednesday, with the publication in the Official Journal of a decree which "repeals the authorization to operate the Fessenheim nuclear power plant owned by EDF". A "first step in France's energy strategy", welcomed Matignon.

The soft shutdown of the 900 megawatt (MW) pressurized water reactor will start at 8:30 p.m. Friday, according to a procedure identical to that used during the maintenance phases.

The pressure and temperature, which reach 306.5 ° C and 155 bar at full power, will gradually decrease in the primary circuit of the reactor and, "when the reactor reaches 8% of its power, it will be decoupled, that is to say - say disconnected from the national electricity network ", explains EDF.

At stake in the negotiations between the Greens and the PS for the 2012 presidential election, the closure of Fessenheim had been announced after the election of the socialist president for the end of 2016. Then it had been linked to the commissioning of the EPR at Flamanville and pushed back to 2018, but it was Emmanuel Macron that he finally returned to announce his final cessation in 2020.

- "Grabataire" -

Built on the border between France and Germany, not far from Switzerland, the plant has become the symbol of all the dangers of the atom for the anti-nuclear weapons of the three countries, which have not stopped coming up, aging which would complicate the replacement of certain parts, a situation below the Grand Canal of Alsace and in a region with proven seismicity. Critics who intensified after the Fukushima disaster in March 2011 in Japan.

Conversely, voices denounce the absurdity of depriving yourself of this carbon-free energy source when global warming is wreaking havoc and when France has set itself the goal of carbon neutrality in 2050.

In a French landscape where nuclear power plants provide 70% of energy production - by far the highest proportion in the world, with the second largest nuclear fleet in the world behind the United States - a reactor like those of Fessenheim produced in average each month the equivalent of the consumption of 400,000 homes, according to EDF.

Twelve additional reactors, out of the 58 in France today, must be shut down by 2035, without, however, shutting down a complete plant as in Fessenheim.

"This plant is bedridden, this plant is dangerous, it's been a long time since it should have closed!", Storms the president of the Stop Fessenheim association, André Hatz.

However, no question of declaring victory on Saturday for the anti-Fessenheim, who will be content with a press conference before, perhaps, a "more festive" event at the shutdown of the second reactor.

"This is just a point of progress, there are still a lot of dangers linked to the closure: for at least three years, the nuclear fuel will remain stored in the decontamination pools, which are non-bunkered and whose roofs are a simple tin roof, "points out Hatz.

- "Reactors in very good condition" -

The disposal of spent fuel should indeed take place by the summer of 2023, then the actual dismantling will last until 2040 at the earliest.

"The operation of plants of the same generation and the same technology as that of Fessenheim has been extended by at least ten years", gets annoyed Raphaël Schellenberger, who chairs a parliamentary commission to monitor the closure of the plant.

"When we consider the fight against climate change as a priority challenge, it is inconceivable today to shut down two nuclear reactors in very good condition and to continue producing coal-based electricity on the French soil until 2024, or even 2026 "choked deputy LR.

Local elected officials are concerned above all about the air gap caused by the shutdown of the power plant, located in one of the poorest and least industrially well-endowed sub-regions in Alsace, and which generates some 2,000 jobs.

They will go to the foot of the power plant on Saturday to denounce a state unable to ensure the transition of the territory and launch an SOS to the President of the Republic.

© 2020 AFP