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ENERGY: Accidents Make N-Questions Bigger

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Jul 31 2008 (IPS) - The recent proliferation of accidents at nuclear power plants in France, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Slovenia and elsewhere in Europe has made calls for greater reliance on nuclear energy questionable, experts say.

Several accidents were reported in mid-July at three nuclear power plants in the south of France. They came days after President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Jul. 3 that his government had decided to construct a new nuclear power plant.

In one accident at Tricastin on Jul. 7, up to 30,000 litres of a solution contaminated with more than 70 kilograms of uranium leaked into ground water. The plant is located near the medieval city Avignon, 530 km south of Paris, in a densely populated area with intensive agriculture.

The leak forced authorities to ban use of water for agricultural and domestic purposes around the plant for several days. The accident drew sharp criticism of Electricité de France, the state-owned power generation monopoly. It first concealed the leak, and reacted to it several hours after it had happened.

At the same plant, about 100 workers were contaminated with radioactive dust containing during maintenance operations Jul. 23.

Five days earlier, another uranium leak occurred at the Romans-sur-Isère plant, some 80 km north-east of Tricastin. Some reports suggested that this leak has been continuing for years.

A fourth accident occurred at the plant at Saint Alban, in the same region, 115 km north of Tricastin. Fifteen workers were exposed to radioactive dust.

Environmental groups say similar incidents occurred during July at the nuclear power plants at Nogent sur Seine, 80 km southeast of Paris, and Gravelines, near the border with Belgium.

“In less than 15 days, we have received information of the accidental contamination of 126 persons working in nuclear power plants,” says Bruno Chareyron, an engineer in nuclear physics, and director of research at the independent investigative commission on radioactivity CRIIRAD (after its French name).

Chareyron told IPS that CRIIRAD had knowledge of other leaks in Tricastin last year. “Carbone 14 and tritium were released into the atmosphere,” he said. “This time, uranium leaked for several hours before the authorities were warned and precaution measures were put in place.”

According to CRIIRAD, the Jul. 7 leak represented at least 17 times the maximum radioactivity allowed legally for a whole year.

Annie Thábaud-Mony, a physician at the French National Institute for Medical and Health Research, says contamination of workers “confronted regularly with important irradiation increases the risks of contracting diseases associated with ionising radiation, such as cancers and disorders affecting the human reproductive cycles.”

All facilities involved in the accidents are the property of AREVA, the state-owned monopoly which constructs nuclear power plants in France. AREVA is also involved in the construction of nuclear power plants abroad.

The new power plant announced by Sarkozy will use pressurised water reactor (PWR) technology. Sarkozy’s predecessor, Jacques Chirac, had decided in 2006 to construct the first PWR in Flamanville on the northwest Atlantic coast, by the English Channel.

The PWR in Flamanville is under construction, and is expected to go into production in 2012, and produce 1,600 megawatts of electricity. But the project has been hit by delays, and construction began really only in December last year.

“We want that nuclear energy be one of the main answers to the oil crisis we are facing today,” Prime Minister Francois Fillon announced. France has long relied on nuclear energy. A total of 58 nuclear power plants produce some 63,000 megawatts, 80 percent of the electricity consumed in France.

But, like all other countries using nuclear energy, France has not found a solution to the disposal of nuclear waste. And, judging by the recent string of accidents, it cannot claim that its nuclear power plants are absolutely safe.

“All these accidents show that, beyond the official incantations praising nuclear power, this technology remains a source of pollution, enormous dangers, and very difficult to deal with,” Fréderic Marillier of Greenpeace France told IPS.

Marillier says that some 900 incidents officially classified as unimportant occur in French nuclear power plants on average every year, in addition to “constant leaks around their facilities.”

Greenpeace has called for a suspension of the PWR programme. It points out that a PWR reactor under construction in Finland, in which AREVA is a partner, has faced numerous setbacks, and will go into production only in 2011, after more than two years delay and a 50 percent increase in construction costs.

Numerous accidents in European nuclear power plants have occurred in recent months. In Sweden, a fire broke out Jul. 11 at the plant at Ringhals, near the city Göteborg. In Spain, accidents led politicians and environmentalists to call for closing the nuclear power plant at Cofrentes, 70 km west of the Mediterranean city Valencia.

As at Tricastin, several accidents took place at Cofrentes, one of seven Spanish nuclear power plants. First, radioactive material was found just outside the plant. Later, on Jul. 13, the plant was automatically shut down after an abnormal surge of power was registered.

Fernando Giner, mayor of Vallada town 60 km south of the plant, says at least 22 accidents have been registered at the Cofrentes plant since January 2007. Giner, member of the right-wing Popular party, has urged the government to close down the plant.

In Germany, two nuclear power plants near Hamburg had to close in March. But leading members of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) have been calling for reversal of a decision taken in 2000 to phase out nuclear power by 2022. That decision was taken by the coalition government of the time, formed by the SPD and the Green party.

“The retreat from the phasing out will come,” former chancellor Helmut Schmidt from the SPD said in an interview with the conservative weekly Die Zeit. “I find it surprising that Germans believe, in contrast to all other industrialised nations, that they can get by without nuclear power.”

Schmidt admitted that nuclear power brings environmental and health risks. “But there is nothing in the world, not even love, that is without risk.”

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