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Nuclear Blunders Raise Safety Questions

Incidents cast doubt on ‘clean’ energy

Associated Press in Paris – Updated on Jul 20, 2008

First, an overflowing tub at a French nuclear plant spilled uranium into the groundwater. Then, a burst pipe leaked uranium at another nuclear site, raising an alert two days ago.

The two accidents within two weeks, both at sites run by French nuclear giant Areva, have raised questions about safety and control measures in one of the world’s most nuclear-dependent nations, and giving fodder to anti-nuclear activists.

Environmentalists said the incidents were a wake-up call, raising doubts about an industry in which France had staked out a leading role internationally. France has 59 reactors churning out nearly 80 per cent of its electricity and state-owned Areva exports its nuclear technologies around the world.

French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo insisted that the incidents were minor, but he nonetheless ordered an overhaul of the nuclear supervision and information processes, and checks of the groundwater around all nuclear plants in France.

Areva chief executive Anne Lauvergeon visited one of the plants to meet employees and local officials.

The former French environment minister, Corinne Lepage, who opposes nuclear energy, said the “repeated incidents … shine a light on the nuclear industry’s failures, mainly due to underinvestment in safety, the protection of human health and the environment”.

On Friday, nuclear safety officials announced the discovery of a burst underground pipe at a plant in Romans-sur-Isere, in southeastern France, run by an Areva subsidiary, Societe Franco-Belge de Fabrication de Combustibles. The pipe had been broken for years and did not meet safety standards.

Jean-Pierre Gros, Areva’s head of combustion, said between 120 grams and 750 grams of uranium had leaked. Areva insisted the leak of lightly enriched uranium did not spill beyond the plant, and it had no impact on the environment.

But the incident was another blow for Areva after a leak at the Tricastin site, about 40km from the historic southeastern city of Avignon. A liquid containing traces of unenriched uranium leaked from a factory run by Areva subsidiary Socatri, spilling from a reservoir that overflowed.

It leaked both into the ground and into two rivers, the Gaffiere and the Lauzon, the nuclear safety agency said. Officials banned the consumption of well water and the watering of crops from two polluted rivers, as well as fishing, swimming and water sports. Local authorities said the leak happened when a tank was washed.

Areva insisted the Tricastin problem “did not affect either the health of employees and local populations, or their environment.” Still, it cost the plant director his job.

Ms Lauvergeon vowed to resist pressure by anti-nuclear activists to resign over the incidents. During her visits to the two sites, she also said she apologised to residents living near the Tricastin factory. “I told them we are sorry and that they could count on our solidarity in case of problems,” she said.

But the accidents were bad publicity just as French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been pushing for even heavier investment in the nuclear industry, given spiralling fossil fuel prices.

Mr Sarkozy said this month that France would build a second new- generation nuclear reactor, or European Pressurised Reactor. Meanwhile, the US, the European Union, China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea are working to create an experimental fusion reactor in southern France, which is aimed at revolutionising global energy use.

Luis Echavarri, director-general of the Paris-based Nuclear Energy Agency, defended the industry’s safety record, saying it compared favourably to other industries such as coal mining. “You can’t ask for perfection from any industry,” he said.

Anti-nuclear campaigners, however, said the incidents showed nuclear power’s inherent dangers. “[These] aren’t isolated incidents – it’s a global problem,” Frederic Marillier of Greenpeace said. “It clearly illustrates the industry’s faults – nuclear is not a `clean energy’.”

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