Radioactive Champagne in our future?

Champagne should be fizzy, not fissionable.

Feature story - 30 May, 2006
Ahhh, a fine Champagne. A delicate nose. Full body. Great colour. And that indescribable sensation when you raise your glass of having your tongue tickled by .... TRITIUM???

Will future vintages contain radioactive waste?

Raise a toast to the French nuclear industry, whose low-level radioactive waste is leaking into groundwater less than 10 kilometres (6 miles) from the famous Champagne vineyards.

Problems at a radioactive waste dumpsite in Soulaine were reported by its operator, ANDRA, to the French nuclear safety authority on May 24th, 2006.  According to their report "the wall of a storage cell fissured" while concrete was being added to a recent layer of waste.

Back in the 1980's, ANDRA stated categorically that their dumpsite would not release any radioactivity into the environment. But that was when they were seeking planning permission. Today, the French nuclear authority is saying "This event revealed a flaw in the conception of the storage cells of the site."

The waste dump, Centre Stockage l'Aube (CSA) in Soulaine, contains nuclear waste both from France and abroad. More waste is trucked into the site every week. Once full, the dumpsite will be one of the world's largest with over 1 million cubic meters of waste, including plutonium.

Greenpeace research released last week showed levels of radioactivity leaking from another dumpsite run by ANDRA in Normandy  -- at  up to 90 times above European safety limits. That waste has seeped into underground water used by farmers, with contamination spreading into the countryside and threatening dairy production.

The Champagne site will receive a total of 4 thousand terabequerels of tritium -- more than three times the amount of tritium waste as the dumpsite in Normandy.

A nuclear waste crisis out of control

"We have been told for decades that nuclear dumpsites will not leak and that the best standards are being applied. In reality the dumpsite in Normandy is a disaster, and radioactivity is already leaking from the dumpsite in Champagne," says Shaun Burnie, nuclear campaigner at Greenpeace International. "The authorities know they have a problem in Champagne already, with mistakes in the design. This is only the beginning of the problem, the bigger picture is that France has a nuclear waste crisis out of control that is threatening not only the environment and public health but also the economy of the Champagne region."

In addition to the low and intermediate waste site in Soulaine, a new high-level waste dumpsite is being planned in Bure -- also in the Champagne region -- in which the most radioactive material in France would be deposited. Plans to build a high level waste facility in the Rhone Valley were scrapped a few years ago after strong opposition by wine producers due to the threat to their vines and wine production.

"The Champagne producers are facing two nuclear time bombs - one already leaking at Soulaine, and one planned at Bure. The wine producers in the Rhone region stood up to the nuclear state in France and won. The Champagne region needs to act fast before it's too late," said Fred Marillier of Greenpeace France.

"The French Government must stop this madness. The new facility must not accept any more waste, and an immediate investigation launched into how to stop further contamination of ground water."

1,200 tons each year and no place to go

Despite having a nuclear waste crisis the French electricity providers Electricite de France (EdF) are seeking approval to build a new reactor at Flamanville, which will increase the amount of high-level waste.

Today EdF's nuclear reactors produce 1,200 tonnes of highly radioactive waste every year. The waste expected from the new reactor would be the most hazardous waste ever produced in a French nuclear power reactor.

France needs to end its love affair with nuclear power, and raise a glass to safe, clean, renewable energy.

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