Can Business As Usual Continue? Accident Highlights Safety Concerns in France

Monday's explosion at the Marcoule nuclear site in France has scared local residents, even if no radiation was released. Authorities may now have declared the incident closed, but the debate about the safety of France's aging nuclear plants may soon heat up.

The Marcoule nuclear site: French people are inceasingly concerned about atomic safety.

The Marcoule nuclear site: French people are inceasingly concerned about atomic safety.

By in Paris

The French authorities assessed Monday's explosion at the Marcoule nuclear site in southern France as "an extremely rare event."

They also took pains to emphasize that the accident, whose cause is still not known, was quickly dealt with. "The fire was under control at 1:06 p.m., measurements of radioactivity were immediately collected," stated the giant French utility EDF, which owns the company that operates the site, located in the southern French department of Gard.

At 11:45 on Monday morning, a furnace at the Centraco center for processing and conditioning low-level radioactive waste exploded, killing one worker and injuring four. The employee burned to death "within seconds," an EDF spokesman told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The man had been working in a room next to the furnace when it exploded, he said.

Authorities were adamant that no radiation had escaped. Measurements taken by the operator outside the building "have shown no trace of radioactive contamination," said the official Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) in a statement on its website, declaring that the incident was "closed." It continued: "No protective actions (were) required for the population."

Nevertheless, people in the region, which is located near the city of Avignon, experienced hours of anxiety. In the commune of Codalet, people locked themselves in their homes when they heard about the accident, according to the Internet news service Rue89. A restaurant owner reported that it took two hours before she was able to reach an official on the telephone who was able to tell her that there was no health risk.

EDF's share price temporarily fell by about 7 percent following the accident. The deadly incident also had an indirect effect on German energy companies. Shares of German energy giants E.on and RWE, both of which operate nuclear plants, temporarily fell to new lows for the year on Monday.

German Phaseout Puts Pressure on France

But is the incident really over as authorities have suggested? Even if no radiation was released, as officials claim, in the long term the political fallout of the explosion could be dangerous for the industry. Even in France, which relies on nuclear energy for about three-quarters of its electricity, enthusiasm for the power source has declined since the Fukushima disaster in March. A survey conducted by the French environmentalist party Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (the Greens) in March found that 70 percent of French people support a long-term phaseout of nuclear power. A survey by the electricity producer EDF found -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- that 55 percent of people oppose a phaseout, however.

Following the disaster in Japan, President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly insisted that France's nuclear reactors -- which in official parlance are always referred to as "nuclear parks" -- are perfectly safe. The "strategic decision" in favor of nuclear power is not up for debate, he said. Yet people living close to nuclear sites and to suppliers to the nuclear industry are increasingly concerned about their safety.

It's not just the Japanese earthquake that has shaken France's fundamental trust in nuclear energy. Germany's planned phaseout of nuclear power, which was pushed through by the conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel in the aftermath of Fukushima, has made it difficult for leaders in France to dismiss environmentalists' calls for a similar phaseout plan as an ecological fantasy.

It doesn't help that France's nuclear facilities are getting old. Plant operators, motivated by business concerns, are pushing for increasingly long operating lives, beyond the four decades that were originally planned. But the country's 58 nuclear reactors need to be taken off the grid increasingly often for maintenance and repair work. There is a tension between profitability and safety, a factor that nuclear security authority ASN pointed out using unusually direct language in a 2010 report.

Sloppy Management

That also applies to nuclear facilities such as those in Marcoule. The center was originally created by General Charles de Gaulle for military purposes. Today, it functions as a service provider for French nuclear companies. Research is carried out at the site, the nuclear group Areva produces nuclear fuel here and Centraco collects weakly radioactive scrap -- such as pumps, valves and protective clothing -- and melts it down in the plant's four-ton furnace. Together, the companies on the site employ around 3,800 people.

Monday's explosion may have been the first really serious accident at the site, but there have been other problems in the past. A 2010 ASN report criticized sloppy management, and in March 2010 an incident occurred involving the production of nuclear fuel.

Back in June, Jacques Repussard, director of France's official Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Institute (IRSN), warned that the design of reactors would have to be reconsidered regarding their protection against major nuclear accidents. "It has been common practice, until now, to ignore extremely low probability events or combinations of events which could constitute accident initiators," he said in a speech. "Such practice is questionable when it is applied to current reactor technologies, developed for their most part more than half a century ago, which do not take into account severe accident consequences in their design basis."

An official investigation will now look into the incident at Marcoule. One thing is certain: The French nuclear industry will want to downplay its significance. On Monday, an EDF spokesman insisted it was "an industrial accident, not a nuclear accident."

With reporting by Markus Becker and Holger Dambeck


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