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EUROPE: New Safety Concerns Raised Over Nuclear Plants

Julio Godoy

PARIS, May 12 2008 (IPS) - Some international organisations and governments in industrialised countries are pushing for further development of nuclear power, but amidst growing doubts over the safety of several nuclear installations.

Concerns have arisen particularly over nuclear power stations in France, Germany, and Bulgaria.

Environmental organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (FoE) are condemning the involvement of French bank BNP Paribas in construction of the nuclear power station at Belene near the Danube River in northern Bulgaria.

The Belene power station "will be applying unsafe Russian technology, which would not be authorised in France," Sébastien Godinot of the FoE told IPS. "The BNP is the only bank in the world ready to participate in this dinosaurian project."

The Belene plant has been plagued by delays and criticism. Approved in 1981 by the Bulgarian government, construction of the plant started in 1987 following a joint design by the Soviet and Bulgarian nuclear authorities. In 1990 the construction was abandoned in the turmoil over the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

In 2002, the Bulgarian government re-launched the project, with plans to operate two AES-92 VVER-1000 reactors provided by Atomstroyexport, the Russian Federation&#39s nuclear power equipment and service export monopoly.

The German engineering group Siemens and the French nuclear power monopoly AREVA are also a part of the project. In 2006, the BNP won a Bulgarian invitation to tender. BNP spokesperson Antoine Sire said the bank has only financed "the pre-feasibility studies of the plant; a second invitation to tender should take place in the coming months."

Sire said that the Bulgarian authorities had decided "for reasons of their own, to wrongly call the pre-feasibility studies part of the construction. But we are not there yet."

Godinot told IPS that the whole project is dangerous. "It is located in a seismic zone, it has insufficient protection against a possible terrorist attack, and it has no means for processing nuclear waste."

In addition, he said, the plan will have "negative effects on tourist activities and agriculture in northern Bulgaria."

Yann Louvel from Friends of the Earth says the Belene nuclear power plant is "also an economic monstrosity. The estimate cost for construction has gone from 4 to 7 billion euros within a year (from 5.8 to 11.5 billion dollars). Numerous international banks decided therefore not to participate in the invitation to tender."

Louvel told IPS that the BNP explanation was an attempt to "deceive the general public. The decision to build the Belene power plant has been taken already, as well as which technology is going to be used. If BNP really believes there will be new studies, its business policy is very naïve."

But Russian nuclear technology is not the only one under criticism. Late in April, the German and the French governments jointly decided to stop transportation of radioactive waste from the French nuclear recycling plant La Hague to a temporary deposit in Gorleben in northern Germany.

Nuclear waste for German plants has for years been recycled at La Hague in order to reduce radioactivity of the final waste, and to obtain as by-product a mixed oxide fuel that can be used again in nuclear power plants.

The decision to stop transportation of the radioactive waste was based on a report by the German Federal Agency for Materials Research and Testing (BAM, after its German name) that said the special wagons that carry the waste, also known as castors, are not proof against contamination of the atmosphere, and might not remain intact in the event of an accident.

The transportation that was due to take place in 2009 may now be put off until 2011. The next possible date is in 2011. New wagons may be needed.

According to BAM, the castors "showed deficits in fundamental ways." The castors are manufactured by the Society for Nuclear Services (GNS, after its German name).

The BAM urged the GNS to pay special attention to quality. The leading German newspaper Die Sueddeutsche Zeitung called the public reprimand "a resounding spank."

According to BAM, GNS had used "arbitrary parameters" in computer simulations carried out to prove the wagons&#39 resistance to radioactivity or to an accident. GNS spokesperson Michael Koelb has admitted that there were discrepancies in the computer simulations.

Jochen Stay, leader of the environmental groups that oppose the storage of nuclear waste in Gorleben, told IPS that "we are aghast in the face of this scandal.

"I don&#39t have to tell you that we have always been very sceptical vis-à-vis the nuclear power industry, and we never believe their assertions on the safety of their installations," he said in an interview. "But the real conditions of how the industry works are obviously beyond our imagination."

Now a new scandal is emerging in Germany. The prosecution office in Stuttgart, some 400 kilometres south of Berlin, is investigating allegations that cement of poor quality was used in construction of the nuclear power plant Neckarwestheim. German environmentalists have called for a temporary shutdown of the plant.

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