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ENVIRONMENT: France’s Nuclear Waste Heads to Russia

Julio Godoy* - Tierramérica

PARIS, Dec 17 2005 (IPS) - France sends thousands of tonnes of nuclear waste to Russia each year, but the details are shielded by a decree of “national security” in order to block debate on the issue, says the environmental watchdog group Greenpeace.

“This kind of traffic of nuclear waste between Western Europe and Russia has gone on for more than three decades already, and allows the big nuclear energy companies, like Electricité de France, to store their radioactive waste at extremely contaminated sites in Siberia,” Greenpeace-France spokesman Grégory Gendre told Tierramérica.

On Dec. 1, some 20 activists from the environmental group tried unsuccessfully to block a 450-tonne shipment of depleted uranium from the port of Le Havre, 360 km northwest of Paris, on the Atlantic coast, to a radioactive material enrichment plant in Russia.

According to the study “La France nucléaire”, published in 2002 by the World Information Service on Energy (WISE), each year the French nuclear station Eurodif, situated on the banks of the Rhone River, 700 km south of the French capital, produces 15,000 tonnes of depleted uranium.

Most of that waste is of no further use, and is simply stored at the nuclear plant. Today there are an estimated 200,000 tonnes of this nuclear material being warehoused there.

But 30 to 40 percent of Eurodif’s depleted uranium – 4,500 to 6,000 tonnes annually – is sent to Russia, where it undergoes “enrichment” to turn it back into fuel for nuclear power plants. Just one-tenth of that uranium returns to France, and the rest remains in Russia, stored in inadequate conditions, say the environmental activists.

Greenpeace also warns that the uranium shipments are made using conventional Russian transportation, without appropriate safety and security measures, along a route that passes through major cities like St. Petersburg and Tomsk, and along the coasts of Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Finland.

An accident or a terrorist attack could be devastating, says the group, which filed a complaint with a Moscow court against the state-run Russian company Tecksnabexport, entrusted with overseeing the uranium imports.

The promoters of nuclear energy consider this source as an alternative for generating power in a cleaner way than is possible with fossil fuels (petroleum, natural gas and coal) – seen as the main culprits behind climate change.

According to Charles Hufnagel, spokesman for Arevan, the French government agency that manages the production and treatment of nuclear fuels, the transport of depleted uranium to Russia is “a routine task.”

“Depleted uranium has very low radioactivity, and its shipment does not pose safety problems,” said Hufnagel.

But Stephan Lhomme, of the Sortir du Nucleaire (stop nuclear energy) federation, says that minimising the health risks of radioactive waste only demonstrates the irresponsible attitudes of Areva and the French government.

“While it is true that depleted uranium is low in radioactivity, it constitutes a carcinogenic element, highly dangerous to human health,” Lhomme told Tierramérica. “If that weren’t the case, the world’s armies wouldn’t use it as material to manufacture lethal weapons.”

Routine or not, Areva has obtained “national security” classification for the issue, making the transportation of nuclear waste a confidential matter, and has reportedly used government intelligence services to intimidate anti-nuclear activists.

Last week three Greenpeace activists were called in by the DST, the French secret service for domestic security, to be questioned in relation to a plutonium shipment made in February 2003.

On that occasion, the Greenpeace activists blocked a truck carrying 150 kg of plutonium. According to the organisation, DST’s intervention “proves that the French state and Areva want to stop any transparent debate on the environmental safety issues related to atomic energy.”

An August 2003 government decree states that all nuclear matters are “confidential” and “national security” issues.

Measures like this do not mean that France – like the rest of Europe that has utilised atomic energy in the past – is off the hook for dealing with the problem of nuclear waste storage, including plutonium, which takes 24,000 years to lose just half of its radioactivity.

A 1990 law established that in 2006 at the latest, France has to identify a geological site appropriate for building a radioactive waste deposit. Despite hundreds of tests on numerous sites throughout the country, the National Assembly is expected in January to extend the search deadline to 2016.

Meanwhile, according to the national radioactive waste agency, there are more than a thousand sites in France being used for temporary nuclear waste storage, and some lack any type of protection. The volume of all types of radioactive waste in France grows by 1,200 tonnes a year.

(* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent. Originally published Dec. 10 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backingof the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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