Transport Special - Plutonium Investigation n°6/7

The Health Impact - Much Worse Than Admitted?

The next day, on 6 May 1998, SNCF is sent a letter by DSIN stipulating that "a first impact study carried out by IPSN dated 5 May 1998 concludes: the maximum dose at a distance of two meters from the shipment is estimated to be 0.05 mSv/h. This value is to be compared to the statutory limit for this type of package which is 0.1 mSv/h at two meters distance". The SNCF representatives decide to reconsider the conditions under which the shipments could be resumed at a next meeting on 14 May 1998.

DSIN publishes its second press release on the issue also on 6 May 1998 (resending the press release dated 30 April 1998 for those who might have missed it...). The half page information is still meager. According to COGEMA, all of the 14 people who have worked at the Valognes site (and who carried dosimeters they claimed) registered doses "well below the European limit of 20 mSv per year. Only 3 persons have allegedly received doses above the measuring threshold of 0.15 mSv. For these people, the values measured throughout the year are respectively 3.85 mSv, 3.45 mSv and 0.5 mSv."

DSIN specifies neither that the limits mentioned are radiation worker limits, whereas the exposure to the public is limited to 1 mSv per year (the limit for public exposure is 0.3 mSv per year in Germany but, as the rumour goes, Germans are less resistant to ionizing radiation than the French...) - which highlights the fact that the doses registered by the dosimeters of the Valognes workers are very significant - nor the fact that the outside radiation level at a distance of two meters is not even the key health issue in this particular case. Since the contamination problem stems as well from relatively high contamination levels over large surfaces as from hot particules of very small size, the key health risks are obviously inhalation and ingestion. No credible evaluation of the potential health impact of both contamination pathways has been produced by the authorities.

The radiation protection office OPRI produces its own press release on 6 May 1998 covering the preliminary results of the inspection carried out at Valognes on 28 April 1998. OPRI stresses that until that date the annual reports of "radiological surveillance" forwarded by COGEMA to OPRI systematically concluded on a "zero impact on the environment". Coincidentally, OPRI does not find a zero impact: parts of the main crane are contaminated with cobalt-60 (28 Bq/m2), silver-110m (16 Bq/m2) and cesium-137 (19 Bq/m2). A surface water recipient at a rail car depot also shows cobalt-60 (29 Bq/m2) and silver-110m (41 Bq/m2) contamination. The soil between the rails is charged with cobalt-60 (45 Bq/kg) and cesium-137 (31 Bq/kg). The sludge stemming from decanting of surface and decontamination waters is found contaminated with cobalt-60 (85 Bq/kg) and cesium-137 (74 Bq/kg) as well. OPRI concludes that this contamination "indirectly demonstrates the cask surface contamination phenomenon" and shows "that the decontamination operations are carried out on the Valognes site under conditions which would merit being clearly specified". According to a scenario where the total contamination of the crane would be made airborne and could be inhaled/ingested, "the dose of a worker who spends 2,000 hours on site could reach several mSv per year". And this is only the contamination of the crane. Much higher contamination levels have been found on rail cars which could have added up to an even more significant radiation dose.

It should be said that the COGEMA Valognes site does not have any nuclear or radioactive discharge license whatsoever since it was always considered that the total quantity of radiation would be below statutory limits and that it constitutes only a mechanical transfer station for nuclear materials transports. The first statement which clearly points to the inhalation/ingestion risk is published on 7 May 1998 by the Energy branch of the CFDT trade union which describes the figures and statements published so far as "by no means reassuring for the protection of the workers".

13 May 1998, while the contaminated transport problem grows into a major political affair, we decide with German television to go back to Normandy. We plan to do a before-and-after piece going back to the various places where we have been before to feel the temperature of what has changed. On 12 May 1998, at the Valognes railway station, the station manager welcomes us and is now even willing to give us an interview in front of the camera. He declares that while the SNCF staff is in direct contact with the spent fuel rail cars, they have been asking in vain for dosimeters for 15 years. At no time had they been informed of any contamination problem. We go back to the military escort police to find out what has changed since the story broke. Nothing, they say. Nothing? There are still shipments going on? Yes, we are told, business as usual. We are entirely taken by surprise.

We go back to St. Martin-le-Gréard a little village with a population of 230 along the truck transport road. The transports have not been stopped? "They don't stop just like that, you know," the man in the street replies. "And one should be fair. If it wasn't for them, there would be no jobs at all in the area". He is happy his son got a job at the COGEMA plant. About 3,000 cars and 400 trucks, many of which transport dangerous goods including various radioactive materials, cross the village every day.

The town's deputy mayor, while he does not like the traffic problem, explains why there is a particular interest in attracting COGEMA employees in the towns in the area: COGEMA pays 24,000 French francs (about $4,000 US) cash to each municipality per year per COGEMA employee on the condition that there are at least 10 COGEMA employees living in town. Tough luck for St-Martin-Le-Gréard: they never made it beyond seven or eight COGEMA employees in the municipality.

The next day, 13 May 1998, we are filming at the Valognes transfer site again. We had come to take pictures of closed doors and shut down machinery. Yesterday, we thought we had a big problem: while we are visiting the beautiful country side of Normandy, Lacoste, the head of the safety authorities presents to the press in Paris his report to Prime Minister Jospin. The invitation only reached the WISE-Paris office on 12 May at 14:54. We decide to organise, via the Paris office of the German TV station, a second camera team to shoot the press conference while we are filming over the fence in Valognes from outside, camera on the roof of the car... a transfer of a spent fuel cask to a truck. Our original scenario idea breaks away. We cannot do a before-and-after story, since there is no after. We thought all transport activity had been stopped one week after the story broke and the announcement by the French rail company SNCF to stop the shipments. Not only does everything seem to continue, but we actually film a member of staff working on a rail car that has just been unloaded with his bare hands, a cigarette in one hand, pushing the cover with the other. We are stunned while watching the transport leaving the site. Before we drive off the area in the afternoon, we have the opportunity to observe an empty cask shipment from La Hague to Valognes and a second full one in the other direction. Three shipments in one day, not bad for a period of non-activity.

We realize for the first time that the State authorities did not prohibit anything and that nothing prevents the truck shipments from proceeding. We had taken it for granted that without rail shipments there would be no truck shipments.

The 10-page thin Lacoste report is very disappointing. It repeats most of the points already known and presents little new evidence. However, it attacks and exposes the State utility EDF in a rather unprecedented fashion on several points:

  • In November 1997 the first information on the contamination problem appears to have been transmitted from EDF and COGEMA to DSIN - in order to take the heat off - just after the first inspection concerning the transport issue was announced by DSIN to EDF for the 18 December 1997 at the site of St Alban; the data supplied during the inspection confirmed that about 25% of EDF's casks had been found contaminated at Valognes.

  • On 30 December 1997, DSIN sends a letter to EDF requesting an "energetic action plan" to be defined and implemented.

  • Lacoste claims that he was confronted for the first time during the interview on 24 April 1998 ("by a journalist of the WISE agency in front of a camera of a German television station") with the data contained in the internal TRANSNUCLアIRE memo and in particular the fact that not only the casks but also the rail cars had been contaminated, highlighting in particular the Gravelines case.

  • Lacoste claims that he was confronted for the first time during the interview on 24 April 1998 ("by a journalist of the WISE agency in front of a camera of a German television station") with the data contained in the internal TRANSNUCLアIRE memo and in particular the fact that not only the casks but also the rail cars had been contaminated, highlighting in particular the Gravelines case.

  • Lacoste states that during a DSIN inspection at the Gravelines site on 28 March 1998, "my inspectors wondered about the consequences of an eventual contamination of the rail cars. The operator had not pointed out anything particular then".

During the joint DSIN/OPRI inspection at Valognes on 28 April 1998, DSIN received a TRANSNUCLアIRE document dated 27 April 1998, indicating plant by plant the contamination levels observed on casks and rail cars in 1997 and 1998. "The maximum contamination noted on the rail cars was 700 Bq/cm2 for the external contamination and 8,000 Bq/cm2 for the internal contamination."

Lacoste indicates that this report was the basis for his press release and his memo to the Ministers on 30 April 1998. Except that he did not mention any figures in his press release (and memo to the Ministers). This is the first time that a figure of 8,000 Bq/cm2, 2,000 times the limit, is published. Lacoste insists that this level corresponds to "a completely singular point which must correspond to a particle, an extreme value". However, neither the latest TRANSNUCLアIRE document nor the figures it contains have been published to date.

Lacoste quotes COGEMA claiming that EDF has been aware of the contamination problem since 1988. A working group was established between EDF and COGEMA in 1992. IPSN was associated to the group and received a report on 29 March 1993 "mentioning the cask and rail car contamination". IPSN "did not formulate any particular remark". The problem was also "regularly mentioned" in the minutes of the CHSCT of La Hague "which were distributed to IPSN and the factory inspectorate (inspection du travail)".

According to Lacoste, "given the absence of any health risk, COGEMA did not consider it necessary to make any public communication, communication which was, by the way, according to COGEMA, in the sender's scope of responsibilities, EDF in this case". Lacoste's conclusions:

  • the EDF "local actors do not seem to be aware of their responsibility as sender; the internal responsibilities are not clearly defined and the checks are deficient"

  • EDF, TRANSNUCLアIRE and COGEMA were "lacking rigour and clarity" in their technical attitude as operators; ハthe situation is due to the "lack of real control carried out by the State"; The situation "is fortunately of no consequence on the health level".

  • the situation is due to the "lack of real control carried out by the State"

  • The situation "is fortunately of no consequence on the health level

  • DSIN has "greatly contributed to improve the situation" through its inspections, but should have looked for the internal contamination of the rail cars; "it has immediately informed SNCF of the external contamination of the rail cars".

This last claim is in total contradiction to the claim by top level SNCF representatives that no information was supplied until the beginning of May 1998. The Lacoste message seems to be: "Well, there was a big mess, but don't worry, DSIN is there to clean up." In fact, DSIN has been aware of the problem at least since November 1997, without informing the Ministers, without informing the rail company, without communicating anything to the public.

The French Green Party declares itself "disappointed and stunned" by the Lacoste report. The Greens consider that the Lacoste report "is not satisfactory since it stays obscure when it comes to the reality of the acts and responsibilities of EDF".

One could add that the Lacoste report does not give any figures on the levels (with one exception) nor on the locations of contamination whether on casks, rail cars or trucks. It does not clear up the question of the origins of the contamination, fails to indicate what the precise potential health impact might be, fails to cover the foreign shipments (one third!) coming into Valognes/La Hague although the relevant figures were available to him in due time, lacks clarification on the decontamination practices at the power plants, at Valognes and at La Hague. And, above all, it does not mention any single regulatory sanction. The SNCF shipment suspension remains the only restricting consequence of the scandal.

In the afternoon, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin states in front of the National Assembly that "the assessment of the health impact shows a dose level below the most stringent international limits". This is simply wrong. There is no guarantee whatsoever that the general annual limit of 10 microSv has not been exceeded. On the contrary, given the high contamination values detected, it is highly probable that people from the public have been exposed to non-negligible doses of radiation.

On Thursday 14 May 1998, the La Hague Commission (Commission Spéciale et Permanente d'Information, CSPI), a committee of local politicians, COGEMA, professional representatives, trade unions and environmentalists, has an extraordinary session on the issue of the contaminated transports in a room of the National Assembly. We are there with a camera team. Jean-Louis Ricaud, boss of the reprocessing department of COGEMA and number one of TRANSNUCLアIRE, admits that COGEMA has been aware of the contamination problem from 1988 onwards. EDF's Bernard Dupraz claims that EDF informed DSIN of the 35% contaminated transports for 1997 in a letter dated 22 January 1998. He also states that there was never any health aspect to the problem and that the situation has been getting better since the first quarter of 1998 ("only" 15% instead of 35% of the transports contaminated beyond the limit - at unknown levels though). Bernard Cazeneuve, local member of parliament and chairman of the La Hague Commission, complains that he has not received any information from EDF so far, "an unacceptable attitude". The atmosphere heats up. Jean-Pierre Godefroy, mayor of Cherbourg turns to EDF's Dupraz and shouts: "If we are concerned about public health and we're not given the information and if it is the operator deciding whether he gives the information, there is something which is not quite right with this Republic, sir. It's not up to you to decide; it's up to the politicians."

A representative from the SNCF signals that when the spent fuel shipments come into the Valognes station at 6:10 in the morning, about 150 people are on the passenger platform just across. Therefore the problem is also highly relevant to people beyond SNCF employees.

We get Godefroy out of the meeting to interview him. We ask him, whether he is aware that the truck transports have continued between Valognes and La Hague. He does not know. He goes back into the meeting room and immediately questions COGEMA about the truck transports. Jean-Louis Ricaud, chair of TRANSNUCLアIRE, states that the rail transport is interrupted therefore the truck transports have also been stopped. A typical "omission lie" as we will find out. The next day, I call up DSIN to find out about those curious truck transports. It takes me until about 18:00 - on a Friday evening - before I get the head of the fuel cycle division on the phone. Truck transports? On May 13? He has not heard of it and promises to call back which he does to inform me that he has ordered a new inspection at Valognes to find out about the state of things.

While I was trying to get DSIN on the phone, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Minister for Economy, Finances and Industry, answers questions on the transport affair in the Senate. Most obviously, he did not have time to study the dossier. He repeatedly mixes up dates and adds nothing to the poor information level. Nevertheless, he does not fail to declare: "Let's clearly reassure all those who need reassurance: for workers as neighbours, there is no danger in this affair." At this stage, DSK, as he is called in France, is still more or less in tune with the general music of the State authorities. It becomes hilarious, when he asks himself the following question and answers it himself:

"Why has this affair become public today? Because in June 1997 the Prime Minister decided that DSIN should from now on be responsible for investigations, which it did not carry out before, and to publish the result of these. If the process had not been modified, one can fear that this information - wrongly - would have stayed 'secret' within EDF and the administration."

The new "responsibilities for investigations", DSK refers to, are the monitoring of the safety of the nuclear transport sector. However, there is no ambiguity over the fact that DSIN - just as the industry - waited for a bunch of Franco-German expert-journos to investigate the problem to publish anything whatsoever on the issue... on 30 April 1998 for the first time.

After the weekend, I leave for Cologne to cut the film with Peter Winterberg. It is only on Tuesday afternoon, 19 May 1998, in the cutting room in Cologne that we get two additional pieces of information: first, four rail cars came into Valognes on 8 May 1998, two days later than everybody thought. They had been already on the road when the suspension was decided by SNCF on 6 May 1998, I am told. Since Valognes does not have any spent fuel storage license, the truck transports continued until 13 May 1998 to evacuate the last casks from Valognes and ship them to La Hague. And second, after having put the question many times to DSIN, here is the confirmation that trucks have also been found contaminated - to unknown levels - when they came into La Hague. Our six minute documentary is broadcast as planned on the evening of 19 May 1998.

In Germany, the story has grown in the meantime into a top governmental affair and everybody is concentrating on the mere questions: who knew what when? The illustration for many of the television reports are the pictures we filmed in Normandy.

On 26 May 1998, during the Franco-German Environment Summit in Strasbourg, the two environment ministers of France and Germany issue a joint statement in which they condemn the "eventuality of a contamination of non-protected people which in itself constitutes a severe malfunctioning which must be excluded in the future." The attitude of the electricity utilities is "firmly condemned".

The wording is similar in a letter which is co-signed by the three French ministers for Environment, Industry and Health to the Prime Minister and made public by the latter on 28 May 1998. The spent fuel transports are only to be picked up again site by site. EDF has to present a plan by the end of June 1998 of how it conceives the methodology of avoiding any future contaminations. An amusing element in the press release of the Prime Minister's office is that while it stipulates that "the shipments have been immediately stopped", it fails to say that this was no government action but a decision forced upon everybody by the rail company SNCF. It is as surprising to learn on 3 June 1998 that DSIN "has given its approval to EDF to restart the shipments of fresh fuel to EDF's nuclear power plants". Nobody knew that they had been stopped in the aftermath of the transport contamination affair... by EDF itself.

One day later, on 4 June 1998, OPRI mails its "radiological control certificate" on the Valognes transfer station to COGEMA. The statement suprisingly clears COGEMA's operations of all blame. Following the decontamination activities carried out on site, "no contamination has been found", except for radioactive traces between the tracks and in the soil. OPRI considers that the activity on the site can be resumed "without any restriction and without fear of any contamination of staff".

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