PARIS, Nov. 28 (UPI) -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy reiterated his support for his country's nuclear energy industry despite a wave of protests and political opposition.
Sarkozy, visiting a nuclear plant in Pierrelatte, France, Friday, shrugged off the spectacle of fierce protests in his country and Germany along the route of a nuclear waste-carrying train to argue that abandoning the nuclear industry would deal the economy a harsh jolt.
The French president said following Germany's lead in phasing out nuclear energy isn't a realistic or desirable goal, The Wall Street Journal reported.
"Stopping the development and modernization of our nuclear sector would be a fatal blow to our competitiveness of our economy," Sarkozy said.
The nation's nuclear industry "is a considerable economic and strategic strength for France. Destroying it would have dramatic consequences," he added.
France is the most nuclear-power dependent country in Europe with 58 reactors providing 75 percent of the country's electric generating capacity. The plants' safety has long been a point of national pride for France but the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan has eroded the bipartisan support the industry has long held.
Sarkozy blasted the positions of Socialist Party presidential candidate Francois Hollande, whom opinion polls indicate has a lead over the incumbent in the run-up to April's presidential elections.
Hollande has said, that if elected, he will phase out 24 of the country's nuclear reactors, reducing France's dependence on nuclear power from 75 to 50 percent of the nation's generating capacity by 2025.
But Sarkozy said such policies were naive and costly, asserting that solar power is 5-10 times as expensive as nuclear and claiming that 30,000 windmills would be needed to replace the nuclear reactors, the Journal reported.
The president's backing of the nuclear industry came as protesters sought to block the route of a radioactive waste-carrying train from a nuclear fuel reprocessing facility in Normandy, France, to Gorleben, Germany, for storage.
The 11-car train encountered its first resistance Wednesday in Valognes, France, as it left the Areva nuclear reprocessing facility, where police fired tear gas and wielded batons to keep protesters from occupying the tracks, the Voice of America reported.
After the train stopped 30 miles from the German border Thursday, it continued into the country Friday, sparking a confrontation in which police fired water cannons at protesters after they blocked a road near the tracks with large tree branches and lit flares, VOA said.
Nearly 20,000 German police had been deployed to deal with the protests, in one case removing 200 activists from the rails to block the train's progress in a "largely peaceful" manner, although several arrests were made, Deutsche Welle reported.
There were more clashes between police and protesters Saturday near the German town of Dannenberg were police were reported injured.
Despite Sarkozy's warnings that renewable energy sources can't replace nuclear power without dire economic consequences, opposition to building new nuclear facilities in France and elsewhere is growing, a poll by research agency GlobeScan commissioned by BBC News indicated.
The poll asked 23,231 people in 23 countries from July to September about their attitudes toward nuclear energy and compared the results to a similar poll conducted in 2005. In France, opposition to building new nuclear plants rose from 66 to 83 percent in the interim, the findings indicated.
The poll had a margin of error per country ranging from 3.1 to 4.4 percent.