Wed, Jul 30, 2008 - Page 9 News List

France’s nuclear ambitions raise concerns over public safety

Nuclear companies want to play a central role in the government’s plan to build new reactors. But a series of accidents has some fearing for their lives

By Angelique Chrisafis  /  THE GUARDIAN , BOLLENE, FRANCE

Sylvie Eymard’s Provence farmhouse kitchen should be the picture of French rural calm. But the stockpiles of bottled water, disinfectant rinse and disposable paper plates hint at something strange.

For the past two weeks, Eymard, 41, and her children, 13 and seven, have had a phobia of taps. To wash up, they go out to the yard and fill a bowl from a specially delivered plastic tank of purified water on a fork-lift tractor. They carry the water up to the bathroom to wash. Even the dog drinks bottled water, and it is left out for the birds.

“I feel as if everything’s constantly dirty,” Eymard said, her hands deep in soapy lather scrubbing plates.

The view from the house over the fields is dominated by the nearby cooling towers of the Tricastin site, a nuclear power plant run by EDF, the company that is poised to buy British Energy and take control of most UK nuclear stations.

Next to the plant is a nuclear treatment center run by a subsidiary of Areva, the nuclear group which hopes to design many of the new British reactors. Last month, an accident at the treatment center during a draining operation saw liquid containing untreated uranium overflow out of a faulty tank. About 75kg of uranium seeped into the ground and into the Gaffiere and Lauzon rivers that flow into the Rhone. Eymard’s house is 100m from one of these streams.

“Like a handful of rural homes near the nuclear site, hers is plumbed into the local groundwater from wells. For 20 years she has drunk from the tap. But after the incident there was a ban on drinking the groundwater, using it to water fields — as all local farmers do — or swimming or fishing in local lakes and streams. Since then, Eymard feels like she is in an episode of The Simpsons, in a Springfield where people’s trust has been abused by haphazard mistakes.

“It feels like a science-fiction film where experts constantly come to examine and film the people who’ve been exposed,” she said.

At the center for adults with learning disabilities where she works, some have seen her on the TV news and innocently asked for her autograph. At 10:30am on the dot, two men in green overalls from the nuclear site appear at her door to collect the daily sample of water from her tap to analyze it for uranium. Levels have fluctuated daily.

Even after the official ban was lifted this week and the families’ urine samples tested normal, Eymard won’t drink from the tap.

“I always trusted that nuclear was totally secure. But now I wonder, have there been other accidents in the past we haven’t been told about?” she said.

The nuclear site at Bollene sits in a picturesque corner of Provence between the lavender fields and cypress trees that stretch north to the nougat capital of Montelimar and to the historic town of Avignon 50km to the south, which was hosting its famous theatre festival when the spillage occurred.

BIG PLANS

Until now most locals have accepted the plant as a risk-free part of everyday life in nuclear-dependent France. More than 80 percent of France’s electricity is generated by the country’s 58 nuclear reactors — the world’s highest ratio. But the leak has shaken French trust in nuclear safety and embarrassed French President Nicolas Sarkozy as he crusades for a French-led world renaissance in atomic power.

Sarkozy wants to export French nuclear know-how around the world, including to the UK, where nuclear power supplies 19 percent of electricity, and London and Paris are to cooperate on a new generation of nuclear power plants. Areva, 90 percent state-owned, is at the heart of foreign cooperation agreements not just with Europe but countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Libya. Last year it clinched the biggest commercial nuclear power contract on record, worth 8 billion euros (US$12.59 billion), to supply China with two reactors and provide nuclear fuel for nearly two decades.

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