Transport Special - Plutonium Investigation n°6/7

COGEMA Makes A Fool Of The Industry Minister

During the same day 4 May 1998, the COGEMA bulldozer media strategy unfolds to unprecedented levels. The COGEMA number one elite technocrat Jean Syrota takes the press (not us) for a visit of the La Hague plutonium factory and the Valognes site in the presence of the Secretary of State for Industry, Christian Pierret, and the head of DSIN, André-Claude Lacoste. Minister Pierret expresses his "feeling of French pride for the control of the technology displayed at COGEMA La Hague". The contamination of spent fuel shipments? A "non-incident" according to Pierret who continues: "All this is absurd. Everything mentioned is without danger to public health," after he has climbed on a spent fuel rail car to demonstrate its perfect harmlessness. The gesture reminds one of former French Defense Ministers' ritual of taking a bath in the lagoon of the Moruroa atomic test site in the Pacific. The Minister also claims "total openness to information, the maximum of information for the maximum of transparency". Rarely has a French minister ridiculed himself to the extent Pierret does on this occasion as it becomes evident only two days later. DSIN's Lacoste also confirms that there would be "nothing dramatic and certainly nothing to get scared about". Move along now, there's nothing to see here... Jean Syrota, the powerful COGEMA boss, full of self-confidence as usual, states: "It has happened in the past that we have underestimated this or that detail which turned out after to be a big media event." But that's over, he thinks. A top level bureaucrat wonders later why Lacoste did not or was not able to brief his minister during the flight from Paris to Cherbourg. Time enough to get a few basic things straight, albeit belatedly.

On the evening of 4 May 1998, I am called up for information by the French daily Libération and decide to finally break the story on the French side. When the news runs on German TV in the evening, I just finish my appointment with the reporter from Libération. While the local and regional press had large scale coverage on 5 May 1998 of the Syrota/Pierret/Lacoste show, Libération completes the story with an exclusive interview of the Environment Minister Dominique Voynet.

On 6 May 1998 Libération runs the story front page under the headline "A Stunning Secret Memo - Nuclear Power: Attention, Dangerous Transports" (with a photograph, taken by a local environmentalist in 1996 and supplied to Libération by myself, showing a non-covered truck carrying spent fuel) plus all of pages 2 and 3. Dominique Voynet is quoted as saying:

"Beyond the level of contamination, I'm shocked by the fact that as soon as one asks some simple questions to the operators, one realises that this has been going on for years, that the three companies questioned (EDF, Transnucléaire, COGEMA, cf Libération) were perfectly aware of it and that they have not said anything. And at Valognes there has been an unauthorised and clandestine decontamination facility for rail cars and casks."

On the question of the health impact, Voynet states it is impossible to say for the time being whether there have been any consequences to the public but that a worst-case scenario for workers in the decontamination workshop shows that more than one twentieth of the annual limit can be reached within two hours. The new "maximum" contamination level identified as indicated by the Minister of Environment is 2,000 Bq/cm2, 500 times the legal limit. The Libération editorial states under the headline "Lie":

"Obviously everything goes on as if the nuclear lobby has learned and forgotten nothing of the good days of the triumphant atom. Or rather yes: it has learned to drown its lies by omission in a flow of communication. (...) The Environment Minister might well express her just wrath in these columns, however, nothing can prevent us from thinking that in spite of a candid posture and a white linen communication the nuclear lobby takes the mickey out of us."

The effect of the Libération article is like a bomb. In the morning I am contacted by France-2 Television - one amongst countless requests for information which were to come over the following weeks - and I agree to transmit some excerpts of the film material we shot in Normandy and give an interview for the 1 p.m. news. In the afternoon, COGEMA hastily organises another press briefing at the Valognes transfer station. Now other journalists (not us) have access to the site and to the hall where the decontamination takes place.

According to the assistant director of the freight division of the French rail company SNCF, no information has been supplied by DSIN to the SNCF directorate directly, not even a copy of the press release of 30 April 1998 (which was obtained by SNCF indirectly), in spite of oral and written requests by the SNCF directorate. A joint meeting on 5 May 1998 with DSIN is not considered conclusive by SNCF. On 6 May 1998, after the publication of the Libération article, the SNCF director of Normandy declares in Valognes that they "just learned from the press that certain transport casks are contaminated". The SNCF headquarters issues a press statement in the early afternoon announcing that "awaiting an answer by DSIN, SNCF, in agreement with EDF and COGEMA, has decided not to carry out any new transports of irradiated fuel". The trade union CFDT claims two days later that the transports were not in fact stopped by the SNCF directorate but by the CHSCT (Health, Security and Working Conditions Council), managed by the unions, which "used its right to withdraw" from tasks considered excessively dangerous. The CFDT declares that dosimeters have been requested for the staff working at the Valognes train station for the last 15 years - in vain.

The Prime Minister orders the head of the safety authorities to report back on the issue within a week while COGEMA ("maybe an error was made", Jean-Louis Ricaud, head of the plutonium division) and EDF ("we did not give enough attention to the rapid resolution of the problem", Bernard Dupraz, head of the nuclear department) keep a very low profile. It is the Environment Minister Dominique Voynet who is given the political privilege of announcing the Prime Minister's order to the National Assembly, the traditionally much more powerful industry minister is forced to listen. It is Voynet again who is the first to find some clear language:

"The seriousness of the affair resides in the length of time during which it had been covered up and the silence which it has surrounded, even if the health consequences are limited. For a very long time the nuclear (sector) has been surrounded by a sort of aura of secrecy. I believe that the moment has come for the different players to understand that nuclear energy will not survive without the respect of the citizen, without transparency, without a strategy of objective, complete information which does not take people for fools."

However, the fact is that it is not the nuclear safety authorities, not the environment, industry, health or Prime minister but the French railway company which stops the spent fuel shipments by rail (the truck shipment is still another story as we will see).

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