Transport Special - Plutonium Investigation n°6/7

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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