France's Nuclear Conundrum Atomic World Champ on the Ropes

France is proud of having the world's most developed nuclear energy infrastructure, but a series of incidents at the Tricastin nuclear power plant has shaken its self-confidence. Is public sentiment about nuclear power about to shift?

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The winegrowers have already made their move. No longer will they label their product Côteaux du Tricastin. Why? Because the name Tricastin is slowly beginning to stand for something far removed from fine wine.

The vintners fear that sales might be hurt by a series of recent accidents at a nuclear power plant near Avignon bearing the same name. "Nuclear energy and food don't really go so well together in the minds of consumers," said Henri Bour, president of the local Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) wine association, in late July. From now on, the wine will likely bear the label of origin "Grignan," after the place where the association is based.

Since the first accident in early July, the situation has only worsened. Last week, radioactive material leaked out once again from Tricastin, this time when radioactive isotopes were released into the atmosphere during a nuclear waste disposal process. It took the authorities weeks to come clean about this incident though it happened a month ago. This incident also puts the reactor over its limit for the permissible annual release by 5 percent, according to France's nuclear safety agency (ASN). But the amount of radioactive exposure only amounts to "several thousandths" of the permissible limit, the public has been assured.

The French anti-nuclear umbrella group Sortir du nucleaire, or Abandon Nuclear Power, has documented the series of incidents at Tricastin. According to the group's count, in July alone, the nuclear power plant experienced three other incidents:

  • During the night between July 7 and 8, 75 kilograms (165 pounds) of unenriched uranium were released into nearby rivers and ground water. The local population was only informed about the accident hours after it took place.

  • On July 23, 100 people were exposed to the radioactive substance Cobalt 58 after a leak at a reactor that had been shut down for refuelling. ASN estimated their exposure was 40 times below the permissible limit. The incident was classified as a Level 0 accident -- "anomaly" -- on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

  • On July 29, personnel were evacuated following an alarm at Tricastin's reactor number four. The facility's operators report that medical examinations of the employees returned no sign of elevated exposure. Sortir du nucléaire contradicts the report, claiming that slight traces of radioactivity were found on two of the 45 employees examined.

France's love affair with nuclear energy is decades old -- no other country in the world is as dependent on the atom as France is. The country's 58 reactors produce nearly 80 percent of its electricity, meaning France only has to import half of its total energy needs. Furthermore, whereas Germans have long been deeply suspicious about nuclear technology, the French have few doubts. What matters are stable energy prices, thousands of guaranteed jobs and the profits derived from exporting nuclear power plant technology.

A Change of Heart?

But is that still the case following the series of accidents at Tricastin? Stephane Lhomme, a spokesman for Sortir du nucléaire, has his doubts. "This series of accidents will leave its mark on the public conscious," Lhomme says. "This will change people's minds about nuclear energy."

Reaction to nuclear accidents in France tend to be much different than in Germany. While almost every broken screw unleashes a new debate in Germany about the future of nuclear energy, they're almost nonchalant about such things in France. In Germany, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) regularly publishes a comprehensive list of all the accidents at German nuclear power reactors. For 2007, for example, the office reported 104 Level 0 incidents and two Level 1 ("incident") occurrences on the INES scale.

This kind of transparency is much less common in France, which is generally much more centralized than Germany. The official nuclear safety agency ASN only publishes total numbers of incidents (for 2007, 708 Level 0 and 56 Level 1 incidents). Individual incidents are only made available on the agency's Web site if they reach Level 1. It is left to the discretion of agency officials whether they publish information about Level 0 incidents. In 2007, this happened only four times -- while the other 704 Level 0 incidents went unmentioned.

Cover Up?

The French media tends to follow suit -- either they publish a few stories about nuclear accidents each year, or they publish none at all. These days, though, things appear to be changing dramatically. The problems at Tricastin became front page news.

"The media coverage after the most recent events was huge," says Helmut Hirsch, a nuclear expert from Hanover, who numbers Austria's minister of the environment and Greenpeace among his consulting clients. "And understandably so, seeing that it actually involved the release of radioactivity." Hirsch adds that, in his opinion, the ASN does provide experts with comprehensive information about accidents. "These things are actually fairly well publicized," Hirsch told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "but the media coverage varies."

Officials at Sortir du nucléaire don't see it that way. "We don't learn anything about things that cause actual problems," says Lhomme. "They're covered up."

Lhomme also says that the most recent incidents at Tricastin were only publicized due to the danger that the news would leak out on its own. The first instinct of nuclear power plant operators, he says, is to say nothing. When they do go public though, says Lhomme, the message is always the same: The incident wasn't that bad.

To back up his claim, Lhomme points to an incident in December 1999 when a hurricane flooded the Blayais nuclear power plant in France's Bordeaux region, forcing the reactor to be shut down. It was only days later the the public learned that not all had gone according to plan -- Sortie du nucléaire spoke of a "serious accident." The IAEA later classified it as a Level 2 event.

The operators of German nuclear power plants are also no strangers to hushing up or playing down accidents. Following an incident in June 2007, which saw a fire break out in a nuclear power plant near Hamburg, the plant's operator Vattenfall -- one of Germany's leading energy companies -- only provided incremental information. Ultimately, two executives and a public relations official with Vattenfall Europe lost their jobs. But the impression remained that nuclear power executives are about as trustworthy as used car salesmen.

After the most recent incidents at Tricastin, Sortir du nucléaire has renewed its calls for Socatri to be shut down. This subsidiary of nuclear giant Areva is in charge of processing radioactive waste at the nuclear power plant and has been responsible for two of the four incidents.

Lhomme is intimately acquainted with the attitude of the French toward the nuclear industry. "Up to now," Lhomme says, "most people have believed that power plants are safe and clean, that France is the world champion of nuclear power." But that, he adds, is changing.

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