The French Council of Ministers Wednesday appointed Francis Rol-Tanguy, 59, to coordinate not only the technical aspects of closing the Fessenheim nuclear plant but also with mitigating the economics of social disruption the move will cause to the Alsace region.
Rol-Tanguy, former chief operating officer of the SNCF national railroad, inherits the delicate task of negotiating with majority owner EDF, unions and local officials bitterly opposed to Fessenheim's closure.
French President Francoise Hollande announced in September he would shutter the 35-year-old facility by 2016. Hollande, leader of the world's most nuclear-dependent country with 58 reactors, had previously pledged to close the reactor by 2017 but moved the timetable up a year.
France has long been a leading international proponent of nuclear power but Hollande, in a deal with the Green Party before this year's parliamentary and presidential elections, pledged to reduce the country's reliance on nuclear energy from more than 75 percent of energy needs to 50 percent by 2025.
The Fessenheim plant, situated on the banks of the Rhine River, is considered vulnerable to seismic activity and flooding and its closure has long been sought by environmental activists.
It employs 770 workers directly but officials estimate more than 2,000 Alsatian jobs in total depend on its twin 900-megawatt reactors -- Hollande has promised to preserve them all.
Under a decree published Wednesday, Rol-Tanguy's official title will be Interministerial Delegate for the effort, but the position has been dubbed "Mr. Fessenheim" by the media.
He will be responsible for negotiating a memorandum of understanding with EDF covering several areas, including the legal, technical, social and economic aspects of the closure; the conditions of the dismantling of the facility; and how to support employees affected by the closure.
Rol-Tanguy is the son of the famous World War II French Communist resistance leader Henri Rol-Tanguy, who also fought in the Spanish Civil War against the Franco regime.
A road and bridge engineer, he has no experience in the nuclear field but does have valuable political capital -- especially with unions, thanks to his service under Communist Party French transportation ministers Jean-Claude Gayssot in the 1990s and Charles Fiterman in the '80s, Le Figaro reported.
EDF Chief Executive Henri Proglio has said he will demand compensation from the government in return for Fessenheim's closure. The Journal du Dimanche reported the figure at $2.6 billion, which Proglio denied.
In the meantime, the company has indicated it is determined to carry out $20 million in upgrades at the plant deemed necessary by the French Nuclear Safety Authority following "stress tests" carried out in the wake of last year's Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
The agency is expected to decide in the coming days whether to give the green light to EDF's plan, which includes strengthening the concrete slab that supports reactor No. 1, Le Figaro said.
That possibility is opposed by environmentalists, who are demanding no more money be sunk into the plant.