Nuclear. The Senate validates the contested merger of ASN and IRSN

Nuclear.  The Senate validates the contested merger of ASN and IRSN

The reform of French nuclear safety was approved this Tuesday by the Senate, in favor of the merger between ASN, nuclear watchdog, and IRSN, expert in the sector, despite strong opposition from the left, associations and employee representatives.

The upper house, dominated by the right and the centrists, adopted this contested text by 228 votes to 98, now transmitted to the National Assembly, the same where the government had tried to introduce it by simple amendment in March 2023.

Passage to the National Assembly on March 11

The deputies, very critical at the time of the process used by the executive, will look into the matter from March 11 in public session. Two visions were opposed in Parliament on this sensitive issue: on the one hand the supporters of a reform necessary to “group know-how” and “adapt to the challenges of our decade”, on the other those worried about to the “lack of transparency” and potential risks for employees.

In the national context of a vast atomic recovery plan, the government text intends to put an end to the dual system currently in place, by bringing together the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN), a sort of scientific police of sector, and the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), the policeman of power plants. These two merged entities will form the “Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Authority” (ASNR), from January 1, 2025. A timetable deemed “ambitious but realistic and necessary” by the Minister of Ecological Transition Christophe Béchu.

Initially worn by the former Minister for Energy Agnès Pannier-Runacherhastily recovered by Christophe Béchu and now in the hands of the Minister for Energy Roland Lescurejust named, the project intends to streamline the sector and reduce delays in the expertise, authorization and control processes.

Strengthening transparency

This reform “adapts nuclear safety to the challenges of our decade”, supported the centrist rapporteur Pascal Martin during the debates, considering it necessary to “bring together the know-how […] to adapt parks to climate change. Despite the “challenges” it poses, this text is “likely to strengthen public confidence because the new authority will be independent”, added Senator LR Patrick Chaize.

The senatorial right and its centrist allies claim to have “rebalanced” the text by strengthening transparency towards the general public and the distinction in governance between expertise and decision-making, two major challenges of the reform. Thus, the Senate plans to impose the publication of expert results or to create an “ethics and professional conduct commission” responsible for “preventing” possible conflicts of interest.

The Senators name the “Independent Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Authority”

More symbolically, the senators also decided to rename the future entity into the “independent” Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Authority (AISNR), a choice that the National Assembly will still have to approve in turn. These adjustments were not enough, far from it, to convince the left groups, headwinds against the reform which they contest in substance as well as in form, while it was born behind closed doors of a nuclear policy council at the Élysée in February 2023.

Socialist Sébastien Fagnen denounced a reform going “backwards from the history of French nuclear power and marked by haste”, saying he feared a “disorganization” of nuclear safety. Many, from communists to ecologists, also raised social setbacks for IRSN employees, who were also mobilized against the reform. On Thursday, several hundred of them, alongside ASN employees and environmental defense associations such as Greenpeace, demonstrated in Paris.

In an open letter published Monday evening, the IRSN inter-union organization again denounced a bill which “will permanently destabilize the nuclear risk governance system”.

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