fear for nuclear plant
Guardian (London), July 19, 2000
David Hearst in Paris
See also WISE-Paris corrections
about this article
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
Corrections and complementary
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
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.