Greenpeace activists protesting in front of the Tricastin Nuclear Power Station

Greenpeace activists protesting in front of the Tricastin Nuclear Power Station

(© Greenpeace/Matthieu Barret)

With France looking to put itself at the centre of the so-called ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ across the world, it’s worth taking a look at just what’s being going on inside France’s own nuclear industry recently. All is not well.

The latest troubles for the Tricastin nuclear power plant in southern France began in early July when a solution containing unprocessed uranium was allowed to leak into two rivers. Areva, the company running the plant, said that although 30,000 litres had been spilled, ‘only’ 18,000 litres had reached the Gaffiere and Lauzon rivers. That’s a strange use of the word ‘only’, isn’t it?

France’s nuclear watchdog, ASN, issued the reassurance that, while the leak was toxic, it was only ‘slightly’ radioactive. A funny kind of reassurance, when you think about it and not one likely to comfort local residents who were ordered not to swim or fish in the rivers, drink well water or irrigate their crops with river water.

Despite that use of the word ‘slightly’, the radioactivity released in that single day constituted 130 times the level of radioactivity the Tricastin site is permitted to release in an entire year. It was found that a faulty valve had caused the leak. A leak the previous week had been ignored. Lovely, safe and clean nuclear energy.

Traces of uranium in the two contaminated rivers were then found to be from an earlier leak. The French authorities immediately ordered tests of ground water at all French nuclear sites.

Less than two weeks later, on July 21, another leak occurred, this time at Areva’s Romans-sur-Isère site. The ASN said the fault in the pipe may have been several years old which makes you wonder just how rigorous safety inspections have been at Areva sites in recent times. ‘Only’ a few hundred grammes of uranium were leaked.

Three days later, Tricastin was in the news again. This time 100 plant workers were exposed to uranium particles from another leaking pipe. Again the workers were described by a spokesperson for Electricite de France (EDF) as ‘slightly’ contaminated as if that detracted at all from the fact that they shouldn’t have been contaminated at all. Like pregnancy, if you don’t want to be contaminated, you really should take the proper precautions.

And the stories just keep coming. Tricastin just can’t keep itself out of the news. If it was a celebrity it would be Britney Spears, a person for whom there were once high hopes but now, despite her best efforts, can’t help but find herself in very public compromising and embarrassing situations as the rest of us look on in horror.

Six days later, on July 30, over 120 workers had to be evacuated from Tricastin when a false alarm was sounded. At least EDF say it was a false alarm. ASN, having seemingly learned to take nothing coming out of the mouths of nuclear PR spokespeople at face value, are awaiting the results of an independent examination of the site. Forty-five employees were found to have small traces of radiation on them said to be remaining from the previous leak.

These incidences of leaks, incompetence, leaks, cover-ups, leaks, spin and leaks came to a head today when Greenpeace announced that it has filed two complaints against Areva with French prosecutors. The first complaint concerned the leak of 18,000 litres of uranium solution. The second is concerning nuclear waste being buried in a hill and covered with earth which then also leaked.

Tricastin is starting to resemble one of those circus clown’s cars, with its belching tailpipe, its doors falling off, and its alarming honking noises. We dread to think what might happen next. A clown’s car traditionally collapses with a bang. We hope there'll be a full national debate on nukes in France soon to avoid any crash.