Transport Special - Plutonium Investigation n°6/7

The Contaminated Transport Saga

A Personal Account by Mycle Schneider

"Transparency is a conjuror's concept"
Daniel Pennac

In the beginning there was a leak. One of the rare sort, an insider tip from a knowledgeable source within the nuclear industry in Paris. Transport containers of spent nuclear fuel coming into the La Hague plutonium factory in Normandy, it said, are contaminated significantly beyond the legal limit. That was in late December 1997. In early January 1998, I went to Normandy to investigate the issue. The story, which broke four months later, was like an earthquake for the French nuclear establishment, and led to a major crisis in the German Government basically stopping all spent fuel transports in Western Europe.

Valognes is a small city with a population of less than 20,000, about 20 km from Cherbourg in the department of La Manche in the Western tip of France. A few hundred meters from the Valognes passenger railway station, the world's largest plutonium processor COGEMA* operates a transfer station from rail to road for spent fuel casks. The Valognes-Armanville site is about 30 km South-East of the La Hague plant. About 300 spent fuel shipments come into the COGEMA terminal from all over France (about two thirds), and from Germany and Switzerland every year before they go by truck to the plutonium plant. In France only the Flamanville nuclear power plant, close to La Hague, delivers spent fuel directly by truck. Also power plants in Belgium and in the Netherlands have been shipping their casks directly by truck to La Hague. Japanese fuel which was entering the country by ship was brought to the plutonium plant from Cherbourg harbour by truck. However, all of the Japanese fuel under contract has already been transported to the La Hague reprocessing plant.

In France the rail transports are carried out under the responsibility of TRANSNUCLéAIRE (100% owned by COGEMA) and the truck transports between Valognes and La Hague are carried out by Lemaréchal(itself 100% owned by TRANSNUCLアIRE). In other words, the whole transport sector is entirely controlled by COGEMA.

At the Valognes-Armanville site the rail cars are taken over by COGEMA staff and driven into a large hall. There, the irradiation and contamination levels of casks and rail cars are checked by COGEMA staff. The international transport regulations** based on recommendations of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stipulate that:

"The non-fixed contamination on all the external and internal surfaces of vehicles, containers, tankers and overpacks used for the transport of packages must be maintained at a level as low as possible and must not exceed the following limits:

a) beta/gamma/alpha emitters of low toxicity:

  • 0.4 Bq/cm2 for the shipments containing also exceptional packages and/or non radioactive merchandise

  • 4 Bq/cm2 for all the other shipments

    b) other alpha emitters [like plutonium]

  • 0.04 Bq/cm2 for the shipments containing also exceptional packages and/or non radioactive merchandise

  • 0.4 Bq/cm2 for all the other shipments."

For many years COGEMA staff have been finding levels of contamination on casks and rail cars which were significantly above the limits. During my investigation, I obtain a TRANSNUCLアIRE document which gives a stunning account of the situation in France. The document indicates that on average 26% of the spent fuel casks and 36% of the "transports" coming into Valognes from French power plants between January and November 1997 were contaminated. While the document, comprising the minutes of a meeting held at EDF's St. Denis site on 10 December 1997 between TRANSNUCLアIRE, COGEMA and EDF representatives, does not explicitly stipulate whether rail cars or trucks or both are meant by "transports", it gives an overview plant by plant of the contamination levels and ratios detected. Four (Bugey, St Laurent-des-Eaux, Nogent, Penly) of the 17 power reactor sites did not have any casks identified as contaminated, but only one site (St Laurent-des-Eaux) was also informed that the transport vehicle was not found to be contaminated. Of the total of 192 casks and transports surveyed, 50 were identified as contaminated up to some 200 Bq/cm2. Worse, the document states under the headline "Case of the transport from Gravelines 1/97/03":

"Contamination noted at Valognes on 26 November 1997. A large part of the surfaces accessible to the public were contaminated in a uniform fashion at a level of several hundred Bq/cm2."

This means that a large part of the outside of the rail car which came in from the Gravelines power plant was identified contaminated at a level of some one hundred times the legal limit.

On 20 April 1998, I go back to Normandy with a camera team hired by the German public television channel ARD. The plan is to shoot during the week and cut the film the following week for a programme to be broadcast prime time in the evening of 3 May 1998. We film a train composed of spent fuel and uranium nitrate rail cars stationed on the passenger platform of the Valognes station. The rail cars are directly accessible. Nobody apparently cares. But the station manager wants us to get off the platform : "Do you have a filming permit?", he shouts. "From whom?", I ask back. "From COGEMA!", he says. "Well, I thought this was a public place...", I reply. "You can't film COGEMA merchandise without authorisation!", he insists. This at a public train station in Normandy. We leave, after having asked to interview the engine driver who refuses to go on camera.

One of the striking differences between France and Germany is the ease with which hundreds of spent fuel transports are carried out in France by road with the escort of just two military police motorbikers whereas the latest transport in Germany mobilised about 30,000 policemen (see Plutonium Investigation n°4-5 Germany). We also learn that the spent fuel casks on the trucks in France were covered with plastic only last year. We go to see the Gendarmes Mobiles who are responsible for the truck escort. They were told that the covers had been applied to the truck transports because Japanese clients had complained about the empty casks being flecked with smut, especially with seagull droppings... Nobody has heard of any transport contamination problem. Nobody is wearing dosimeters.

We drive to the transport company Lemaréchal and talk to the friendly director general. He says, he does not have the green light from TRANSNUCLアIRE, the parent company in Paris, to give us a TV interview. Anyway, he has never heard of any contamination, he says. "There are people driving, people in the street... It would be very surprising if we ourselves did accept taking any risk. Everything is perfectly under control." Given the fact that TRANSNUCLアIRE has been aware of the problem for many years, either the man has missed his vocation as an actor or the truck transporting company was really not told about the contamination readings COGEMA staff filled into the "listings" after the trucks come into the La Hague facility.

Through one of our sources we find out that on the next morning there is a truck spent fuel shipment from the Valognes transfer site to La Hague. And, at about the same time, an empty cask would leave La Hague to get to the Valognes site. We are there in time to accompany the full cask transport from Valognes to La Hague and to witness the spectacular crossing of these two 120 metric ton, nine axis, 36 wheel monsters on a narrow country road. The pictures are spectacular. A couple of weeks later they would be repeated over and over again on various German TV stations***. However, many times the trucks and their load would be contaminated as they drive along the homes and gardens of the people in the area. We asked the people in the street. Worried ? No, why should they be worried. Never heard of any contamination problem. Not that they particularly like the transports, "traffic and noise are quite a nuisance, not to mention radioactivity or the like".

* COGEMA (Compagnie générale des matières nucléaires) is 81.5% owned by the State operated CEA (Commissariat à l'énergie atomique), 15% by the State oil trust TOTAL and 3.5% by the engineering firm TECHNIP

** Journal Officiel, "Transport des marchandises dangereuses par route - Arr腎é du 5 décembre 1996 (dit "Arr腎é ADR"), January 1997 (our translation)

*** The Franco-German station ARTE had been sent the pictures by us but did not cover the issue "for internal political reasons" between the French and the German departments, as one knowledgeable source put it. The Germans were pro, the French against. In fact, while the media in both countries steadily reported over weeks, the whole issue was hardly even touched upon by ARTE. But I guess that's another story...

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