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NUCLEAR

Live blog: France nuclear blast

The Local is updating live after a blast at a nuclear plant in southern France left one person dead and four injured on Monday.

Live blog: France nuclear blast
Kmaschke (File)

6.01pm: We’re now wrapping up our live blog coverage following today’s fatal explosion at a nuclear facility in southern France. You’ll find all the latest news in this round-up article. We will of course continue to monitor events and keep you updated should there be any major developments. Thanks for reading.

4:32pm: @maitreroger on Twitter: “First twinning committee of the towns of #Marcoule and Fukushima to have inauguaral meeting at Chernobyl next weekend.”

4:26pm: Corinne Le Page, MEP for Mouvement Démocrate, tweets: “To EDF, it’s an industrial accident. Fukushima is a natural accident. The moral: there’s no such thing as a nuclear accident.”

4:15pm The French nuclear safety agency, ASN, has declared the incident ‘over,’ AFP reports. “This accident has no radiological risk or need for population protection,” the agency said in a release, adding that it had suspended its crisis cell dealing with the incident.

3:48pm: French TV is showing images of members of the public walking around freely outside the Marcoule nuclear plant.

3:35pm The French Nuclear Energy Board (CEA) says that it had not taken measures ‘to isolate or evacuate’ staff at the plant, as those injured ‘have not been contaminated.

3:33pm: Le Monde, quoting a ‘government source’ says that the explosion would appear to have been caused by human error.

3:28pm: CNN, citing news source Global Security, is reporting that weapons-grade plutonium is produced at Marcoule. However, Global Security states on its website that the weapons plant at Marcoule was shut down in 1997.

3.07pm: Green Party national secretary Cécile Duflot:

“Since the Fukushima incident, a will has been expressed [by the nuclear industry and authorities] to be more transparent, and now is the moment for the competent authorities and for the managers of the Marcoule site to immediately put this to the test.”

3:04pm: L’Express is quoting a spokesman for EDF, parent company of the plant’s owner, Socodei: “This is an industrial accident, not a nuclear accident.”

2.59pm: From the ASN (Nuclear Safety Authority) press release:

“According to preliminary information, this was an explosion in an oven used to melt metallic waste of weak and very weak radioactivity.”

“The plant’s operator has put into operation its internal emergency plan, in accordance with procedures.”

2.56pm: Via AFP: There was no radioactive leak following Monday’s explosion at a nuclear site in the south of France in which at least one person died, the French government said.

2.54pm: Green Party presidential candidate Eva Joly on Twitter: The government ought to inform the population and staff [at the plant] in real time.

2.49pm: The site is around 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of the historic city of Avignon which is thronged with tourists at this time of the year, AFP report. Also very close to Orange and just 130km from Marseille.

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2.44pm: Shares in EDF, ultimate owner of the Marcoule plant, fell 6 percent following news of the explosion, le Figaro reported.

2.41pm: Midi Libre reporting that ASN, the agency responsible for nuclear safety, did not have anybody at the site of the accident almost 2 hours after the blast. They told the newspaper to “call back later”.  

2.35pm: There are no live reactors at the Marcoule plant. The last of Marcoule’s three reactors was shut down in 1984.

2.23pm: The nuclear plant is close to the small town of Bagnols-sur-Cèze in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France. It is in the Côtes-du-Rhône wine producing region.

2.21pm: More updates in The Local’s main story on the blast.

2.14pm: Midi Libre now reporting one dead, four injured. One man seriously injured, evacuated to Montpellier by helicopter.

2.13pm: The newspaper Midi Libre is reporting that the body of the man who was killed was “carbonised”.

2.10pm: RT @ITwitius: French police say NO contamination from nuke power plant explosion – monitoring.

2.08pm: A spokesman for the French Nuclear Energy Board (CEA) has said that there are “currently no emissions outside the plant.”

ENERGY

France turns off oldest nuclear plant… but not everyone is happy

France's oldest nuclear plant was switched off on Monday, ending four decades of output that built the local economy but also fuelled cross-border controversy. While environmentalists are happy with the shut down, not everyone is.

France turns off oldest nuclear plant... but not everyone is happy
The Fessenheim nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP

The second and last reactor of the plant at Fessenheim in eastern France went offline at 11pm, said state-owned power company EDF.

Anti-nuclear campaigners in France, Germany and Switzerland – who for years have warned of contamination risks, particularly after the catastrophic meltdown at Fukushima, Japan in 2011 – welcomed the closure.

But for Fessenheim Mayor Claude Brender, closing a plant that is “in good working order and has passed all the security tests” was “absurd and incomprehensible.”

“It's a tough blow for the local economy, that's for sure,” the mayor told BFMTV

'Inhuman'

At the end of 2017, Fessenheim had more than 1,000 employees and service providers on site.

Only 294 people will be needed on site for the fuel removal process until 2023, and about 60 after that for the final disassembly.

It is estimated that shutting down the reactor will put the livelihoods of 2,500 people in the tiny Alsatian community at risk, directly or indirectly.

In Fressenheim, people expressed anger over the decision, fearing for the future of the workers that would lose their jobs.

“What pain, it is inhuman what is happening,” the CGT labour union tweeted as the first switches were flicked.

“We want to die,” they tweeted.

 

The government has said workers will be transferred to other EDF sites. But many would have to leave their families behind.

Safety failures

The reactor in Fessenhaim opened in 1977 and had outlived its projected 40-year life span by three years.

While there is no legal limit on the life span of French nuclear power stations, EDF has envisaged a 40-year ceiling for all second-generation reactors, which use pressurised water technology.

France's ASN nuclear safety authority has said reactors can be operated beyond 40 years only if ambitious safety improvements are undertaken.

In the 1990s and 2000s, several safety failures were reported at Fessenheim, including an electrical fault, cracks in a reactor cover, a chemistry error, water pollution, a fuel leak, and non-lethal radioactive contamination of workers.

In 2007, the same year a Swiss study found that seismic risks in the Alsace region had been underestimated during construction, the ASN denounced a “lack of rigour” in EDF's operation of the plant.

A pro-nuclear energy group protests outside the Greenpeace headquarters in Paris the day France switched off the Fessenheim nuclear power plant. Photo: AFP

.. not done before 2040

Former president Francois Hollande pledged to close Fessenheim – on the Rhine river – but it was not until 2018 that his successor Emmanuel Macron gave the final green light.

The procedure to finally shut down the plant, four months after the first reactor was taken offline, started hours earlier than scheduled, and will be followed in the coming months and years by the site's dismantlement.

After its disconnection from the power grid Monday, it will be months before Fessenheim's reactors have cooled enough for the spent fuel to be removed.

That process should be completed by 2023, but the plant is not expected to be fully dismantled before at least 2040.

12 more closures announced

Without Fessenheim, France will still have 56 pressurised water reactors at 18 nuclear plants  generating around 70 percent of its electricity.

Only the United States, with 98, has more reactors, but France is by far the world's biggest consumer of nuclear energy.

In January, the government said it would shut 12 more reactors nearing or exceeding the 40-year limit by 2035 – when nuclear power should represent just 50 percent of the country's energy mix – in favour of renewable sources.

At the same time, EDF is racing to get its first next-generation reactor running by 2022 – 10 years behind schedule – and more may be in the pipeline.

Future plans under consideration for Fessenheim include turning it into a site for recycling low-level radioactive metal, or a biofuel plant, both promising to bring back hundreds of jobs, but neither expected to materialise for several more years.

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