The Contaminated Transport Saga
A Personal Account by Mycle Schneider
"Transparency is a conjuror's concept"
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
*** 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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