France's Nuclear Worries: Chain of Accidents Prompts Soul Searching

France's confidence in atomic energy has been shaken by a recent series of mishaps at nuclear facilities. Although none of the incidents appears to be on a major scale, politicians and the population are starting to question industry practices.

People demonstrate outside the Tricastin nuclear facility near Avignon, which has been the site of a number of mishaps in the last three weeks.
AFP

People demonstrate outside the Tricastin nuclear facility near Avignon, which has been the site of a number of mishaps in the last three weeks.

After a series of blunders and leaks over the last few weeks, it appears that Europe's leading nuclear power nation is starting to take a new look at its usually strong support for the atomic energy sector.

France, which depends on 59 nuclear reactors to provide almost 80 percent of its electricity and also to feed European power grids, has suffered nine nuclear mishaps in the last three weeks. The series of accidents started on July 7 when a solution containing non-enriched uranium leakedfrom the Tricastin nuclear facility in southern France into the ground and two nearby rivers. The same facility faced another shock last Wednesday when 100 employees of French energy utility company Electricite de France (EDF) were "slightly contaminated" by radioactive particles spewing from a pipe.

"What concerns us," EDF spokeswoman Carline Muller told the Associated Press, "is less the level of the people contaminated than the number of people contaminated."

The sheer number of recent mishaps has succeeded in shaking the usually steely confidence of Areva, the French nuclear giant which runs the Tricastin facility through its Socrati subsidiary. A top executive at the facility has lost his job, and law enforcement authorities have searched through his office as part of an investigation into whether facts have been covered up.

The French have never "spoken so much about nuclear energy and its problems," says Stephane Lhomme, spokesman for Sortir de nucleaire, or Abandon Nuclear Power, an umbrella group for French anti-nuclear organizations.

After initially downplaying the seriousness of the accidents, France's government has now been goaded into action as well. Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo has now acknowledged that France's nuclear facilities have experienced a total of 115 "small irregularities" this year. Borloo has stated the government will require a comprehensive examination of France's atomic industry, but anti-nuclear groups claim the measures don't go far enough.

"I've been told that everything is under control," Borloo told the French daily Le Parisien on July 17. "I intend to make sure."

jtw/spiegel/ap

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