State Utility EDF Caught Out With Lies
On 22 April 1998, we leave the Cherbourg area to go to the Gravelines
power plant 450 km north, close to the Belgian border. Six 900MW reactors
operate here, one of the largest nuclear sites in the world. We want
to get an explanation from inside a power plant on the process of the
loading of the spent fuel into the cask and its transfer onto a rail
car. We selected this particular site because we were intrigued by the
"several hundred╩Bq/cm2" contamination levels accessible to the public"
recorded in the aforementioned TRANSNUCLâAIRE document.
We are late, the public relations officer and the engineer responsible
for the spent fuel and radioactiforecast. ve waste management at Gravelines
are awaiting us. They are very friendly and "completely transparent",
so they claim. The EDF engineer tells us to camera that:
"The radioprotection department carries out a certain number of checks
to make sure that the cask is not contaminated. And the cask will
only leave the site if it is within the limit of non-contamination.
A contaminated container could not leave the site and would not leave
the site in any case."
So much for transparency. It is only after insisting heavily that the
EDF representative admits that they had "occasional" and "insignificant"
contamination problems. The most he would say after further questioning
is that 20% of the Gravelines casks coming into Valognes in 1997 were
contaminated. He further pretends he has never heard of the severe contamination
case of November 1997. After I have pointed to the TRANSNUCLâAIRE document
with a 43% figure, indicating the share of contaminated Gravelines casks
which came into Valognes in 1997, the public relations man, extremely
nervous by that time, interrupts the interview. The engineer, hardly
in a better state than his collegue, turns around immediately and grabs
his attaché case, pulls out a document, flips through and nods: "You're
right, it was 40% in 1997". In other words, the facts were right there,
not inaccessible, far from unknown or never-heard-of: the person just
got the figure wrong on top of it. The State utility EDF broke the fragile
limit between misinformation and outright lie. And this is only the
tip of the iceberg, as the public would find out in the following weeks.
On 23 April 1998, the morning following the interview with EDF, I call
up André-Claude Lacoste, head of the nuclear safety authority DSIN (Direction
de la s×reté des installations nucléaires) in France, to ask him whether
he knows about contaminated spent fuel transports and whether he will
give me an interview on the issue for German TV. I am rather surprised
when he says that he knows about the issue and that an interview is
no problem. What about the next morning in Paris? He ventures. The very
same day, Mr Lacoste apparently for the first time informs his Ministers'
offices, Environment and Industry, that there is a problem. Also his
office informs the German Environment Ministry by phone the same evening
that transports from Germany have also been found contaminated, although
he had known the fact for several months.
During the interview, on the morning of 24 April 1998 - in the unexpected
presence of a top official from the National Radiation protection Office
(OPRI) which claims to have only been informed of the cask contamination
problem this very same day (perhaps just before the interview?) - Mr
Lacoste says that he has known since December 1997 that casks were contaminated.
Other sources say that DSIN participated in an internal industry fuel
cycle meeting on 26 November 1997 with the participation of COGEMA and
EDF and was fully informed then. It is true that DSIN only took over
responsibility for the inspection of fissile material transports on
12 June 1997 and the first transport inspection was carried out at the
St. Alban power plant on 18 December 1997. Before, there was not even
a full staff position within the Transport Ministry responsible for
the thousands of transports of radioactive materials in France. In other
words, there was no inspection at all.
Lacoste says that he had knowledge of maximum contamination levels
of 150 - 180 Bq/cm2, not more. He claims that DSIN has never heard of
levels of several hundred Bq/cm2 and that transport vehicles like rail
cars and trucks were never mentioned. On the question of whether at
the Valognes transfer station, when a contaminated cask is identified,
it would be decontaminated there, Lacoste answers:
"To the best of my knowledge surface decontamination is not authorized
at Valognes. I do not think that any is being carried out there."
According to our information, casks and rail cars have been decontaminated
at Valognes for years. Trucks are decontaminated at La Hague. Lacoste
phones back a couple of hours after the interview to say that COGEMA
just told him that "they do something there which looks much like decontamination:
they said literally that, if they find higher contamination levels during
the wipe test, they wipe a little more...".
The decontamination methods in this undeclared decontamination workshop
at Valognes are indeed rather rudimentary and the resulting waste management
scheme is hard to believe. The pieces of material which are being used
to wipe off the contaminated spots from a given spent fuel cask are
put into a little drum which is put into the truck driver's cabin and
shipped with the cask to La Hague where it is processed as low active
waste. In the case of the use of water, the contaminated liquid is dried
and the sludges are also periodically transported to La Hague, conditioned
and treated as low level waste. DSIN and OPRI officials confirmed this
practice to me while an IPSN (Institut de protection et de s×reté nucléaire,
the technical backup organisation for DSIN) spokesperson is quoted even
at the end of May, as calling the driver's cabin radwaste shipment practice
"highly unlikely". Who can blame her? It does sound incredible.
During the day of 23 April 1998, the EDF communication machine works
on a strategy to take off the heat off what is expected to come when
we release our information. In the evening, on urgent request, EDF faxes
the December 97 TRANSNUCLEAIRE document to Lacoste.
On 24 April 1998, EDF issues a press release announcing reinforced
controls for spent fuel casks, since 54 of the 208 casks were found
to have contamination levels higher than the international limit when
they arrived at Valognes although they would appear perfectly clean
when they leave the plants. Do the casks get mysteriously contaminated
during transportation?, the press agency AFP asks. "Absolutely not,"
replies the representative of the EDF nuclear division, "the problem
simply comes from the particle sampling method". And, of course, "without
any risk to human beings". No contamination figures, no mention of rail
cars, no sites, no background. "A monument of mouth clichés," comments
the head of OPRI a few weeks later.
Three days later, on 27 April 1998, the Environment Minister puts out
a statement recalling that DSIN has "recently noted that an abnormally
high radioactive contamination, very clearly above the limits defined
by law", had been found on spent fuel casks. The Minister, Dominique
Voynet, stresses that "the explanation given to date by the operators
is not satisfactory" and that it is essential that "the responsibilities
of the non-respect of the regulations are clearly established". The
explanation the Minister gives is not satisfactory either. No figures,
no word of rail cars. Nevertheless, she clearly states that she is closely
following the investigation being carried out under the responsibility
of DSIN on the issue and that many questions - including the potential
impact on health - are still open.
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