July 2000

Quake fear for nuclear plant

Guardian (London), July 19, 2000
David Hearst in Paris

See also WISE-Paris corrections about this article

[Posted 20/07/2000]

The French nuclear safety inspectorate has demanded the closure of a key nuclear reprocessing plant in the south of the country because it is built on an earthquake zone which seismologists fear could soon become active. One of the jewels in the crown of France's once unchallenged nuclear industry, the plant at Cadarache, on the mouth of the Rhone, has become a massive liability, producing mixed oxide fuel for the German nuclear industry, which Berlin says it is going to phase out.

After five years of fruitless negotiation between safety inspectors and plant operators, details of an official seismological survey have been leaked to a watchdog group in Paris.

The survey reveals a "significant growth" of activity in the area around the plant since December 1993. The last big earthquake in the area was in 1913, but the surveyors say the fault line is capable of generating a major earthquake once in a hundred years.

A map shows fault lines running on three sides of the plant on the river Durance, a tributary of the Rhone. Without challenging the seismologists' findings, Cogema, the operator of the installation, has offered to encase the plutonium treatment plant in a concrete shell. But the inspectors say this is fraught with difficulty.

Far from responding to the safety concerns, Cogema has increased its production of mixed oxide fuel (MOX ) to 40 tonnes a year, five times greater than at the Sellafield plant in Britain.

The director of the nuclear safety inspectorate, André-Claude Lacoste, told Cogema that it would have to close the plant "shortly after the year 2000". He said the closure date should be "definitive and non-negotiable" and complained about the delay and obfuscation that his inspectorate had encountered. He told Cogema in a letter: "I consider the situation unacceptable."

Cogema threatened to transfer the production of MOX to another southern plant, at Marcoule, itself at the centre of an environmental row.

The threat infuriated the safety inspectorate, to the extent that one of its top officials scribbled the comment "blackmail" on the Cogema letter before sending it to the French environment minister, Dominique Voynet, who is the leading Green minister in the government.

Photocopies of the increasingly terse correspondence also arrived at the offices of a Paris-based nuclear watchdog, the World Information Service on Energy .

Mycle Schneider, the group's director, argued: "The fact that this has been going on for five years without the industrial side of the nuclear industry having come up with a clear answer to the requests of the official safety authority, means that the French goverment has to step in and seize control."

The group claims that the Cadarache plant, built in 1962 to service France's now defunct Superphénix fast breeder reactor programme, has never been properly licensed, making it unclear which minister has the authority to close it. But it believes that the writing is on the wall for European production of mixed oxide fuel, which was one way of using the quantities of plutonium produced in spent fuel rods at civil reactors.

Cadarache takes the plutonium separated from the spent fuel rods at the main reprocessing plant at La Hague in northern France and converts it into MOX fuel which services two-thirds of Germany's nuclear reactors.

Corrections and complementary information

Concerning the article by David Hearst, " Quake fear for nuclear plant ",
published in The Guardian, London, 19 July 2000

WISE-Paris, 20 July 2000

The Guardian article mentioned above calls for a certain number of clarifications:

    • The French nuclear safety authorities DSIN (Direction de la Sûreté des Installations Nucléaires) request the shut down of the plutonium fuel (MOX) fabrication facility (Atelier de Technologie du Plutonium, ATPu) at the Cadarache Nuclear Research Center (Centre d'Etudes Nucléaires - CEN), built in 1961. The ATPu is not a nuclear reprocessing plant but well a MOX fuel fabrication facility. The only French nuclear reprocessing plant is situated at La Hague in Normandy.

    • The Cadarache center, under overall responsibility of the French Atomic Energy Commission (Commissariat à l'Énergie atomique) is located close to the Durance river that leads to the Rhone.

    • The information has not been " leaked " to WISE-Paris. We made this very clear to the Guardian reporter. All of the information has been put together on the basis of officially released documentation and in particular the exchange of letters between DSIN and CEA/COGEMA, has been released by DSIN on request of WISE-Paris. This is a first in our experience and we welcome this attitude, demonstrating an unprecedented possibility of access to information in the nuclear sector in France.

    •  The CEA/COGEMA letter that contains the " blackmail " annotation by a DSIN official, to our knowledge, has never been sent by DSIN to the French Environment Minister, Dominique Voynet. It has been officially sent to WISE-Paris.

    • The fact that there has never been a licensing procedure or a government decret authorising COGEMA to operate the facility does not mean that it is unclear who has the authority to close the Cadarache MOX facility. The Environment and Industry Ministries clearly have joint oversight over nuclear safety in France. In case of controversy, the arbitration is with the Prime Minister.

    • The Cadarache plant concentrates about two thirds of the total quantity of MOX fuel contracted by Siemens on behalf of German utilities with European MOX fuel fabricators in the UK, Belgium and France.

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