French Nuclear Leak Critics Worry as Authorities Ban Water Use

While safety agencies in France are playing down the risk to public health from Tuesday's uranium leak at the Tricastin nuclear plant, water-usage bans have worried skeptical residents and environmental organizations.

By Josh Ward

A view of the Tricastin nuclear plant. Unenriched uranium leaked from the site on Tuesday contaminating two rivers nearby.

A view of the Tricastin nuclear plant. Unenriched uranium leaked from the site on Tuesday contaminating two rivers nearby.

Following Tuesday's accidental leak of over 30,000 liters (7,925 gallons) of a solution containing uranium in southern France, nuclear safety agencies are minimizing the possible danger. But emergency bans put on water use in the area by local authorities have worried residents and environmental organizations at a time when much of Europe is re-embracing nuclear power as way to slow global warming.

The leak occurred Tuesday morning, when a tank containing a solution with traces of non-enriched uranium was being cleaned at a processing facility operated by the Socatri group, a subsidiary of nuclear giant Areva, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Avignon. The contaminated liquid then overflowed from a reservoir and seeped into the ground and the Gaffiere and the Lauzon, two nearby rivers that flow into the Rhone.

Charles-Antoine Louet, an official from France's nuclear safety agency (ASN), has said that the "risk is slight," according to the Associated Press. Although Louet's organization estimates that uranium concentrations in one of the contaminated rivers are about 1,000 times their normal levels, he stressed that the solution was toxic but only slightly radioactive.

Despite ASN's assurances, local authorities have now banned the use of well water from three nearby towns as well as using water from the contaminated rivers to irrigate crops. Residents have also been banned from swimming, doing water sports and fishing in the contaminated waters.

Environmental groups echo the worries of local authorities. Frederic Marillier, a spokesman for Greenpeace France, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that his organization believes that the French authorities might be under-rating the significance of this spill, adding that: "Unfortunately, spills of this type are not so unusual." In order to be in a better position to estimate the consequences of the leak, his organization plans to send representatives to accompany the ASN team when it begins its inspection of the contamination site Thursday.

The anti-nuclear umbrella group Sortir du nucleaire, or Abandon Nuclear Power, has seconded Greenpeace's evaluation, adding in a statement that uranium "particles are excessively dangerous because they penetrate the organism and remain there, leading to a strong possibility of cancer."

Andre Lariviere, a spokesman for the organization, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that: "It is common for France's government, which has sold its soul to (nuclear) energy, to minimize and pretend there aren't any problems." His group is organizing an international anti-nuclear rally in Paris to be held this coming Saturday.

The Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity, a French NGO founded after the Chernobyl disaster, estimated Wednesday that the radioactivity caused by the leak is 100 times higher than the annual permissible maximum.

The Nuclear Renaissance

The Tricastin nuclear site where the leak occurred is one of 59 nuclear plants supplying nearly 80 percent of France's electrical power. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is a strong backer of nuclear energy, recently calling it a "weapon of peace." His country is cooperating with Saudi Arabia, India and a number of North African countries to help install nuclear power plants, and the government decided in May to establish a state agency for exporting French atomic technology.

Greenpeace's Marillier said: "This accident just shows that what Sarkozy says is wrong and that this will never be a clean-energy industry. Even though France wants to export nuclear power to the world, it isn't even able to keep things clean on its own sites."

In the age of climate change concern and skyrocketing oil prices, nuclear power generation is back in fashion in Europe. Countries like Switzerland, Poland and the Baltic states are either in the building or planning stages for new nuclear power plants, and the governments of Italy and Great Britain are pushing for increased reliance on nuclear energy.

The Debate in Germany

In Germany, the issue of nuclear energy is driving a wedge between the main members of the ruling grand coalition. Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrat party (CDU) has called nuclear energy "eco-energy" and is hoping to keep Germany's nuclear power plants in operation past the date some 15 years from now when Germany is scheduled to complete the phase-out of nuclear energy that was agreed upon by the government of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.

Any changes in the phase-out schedule are strongly opposed by the SPD, which has accused the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, of having turned "into a nuclear sect." Green Party leader Claudia Roth has strongly argued against the re-emergence of what she calls "dinosaur technology."

The debate in Germany comes amid recent concerns about a nuclear waste dump in Asse, in the northern state of Lower Saxony. A section of the facility is sealed off due to radioactive contamination, and there are fears that brine seeping into it will eventually corrode the rock shell that prevents the release of 89,000 tons of weakly to moderately radioactive waste.

On Wednesday, Michael Müller, Germany's deputy environment minister and a member of the SPD, warned against underestimating the importance of the French spill. "It's not a trivial thing when radioactive uranium gets into the ground," Müller told the AFP. Müller added that the incident just shows that: "When it comes to nuclear power plants, things always continue to happen that nobody had foreseen."



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