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NUCLEAR

French nuclear incident ‘is over’: safety agency

An incident caused by a blast at a nuclear site in the south of France Monday in which one person died "is over", its regulator the national Nuclear Safety Authority said.  

“This accident has no radiological risk or need for population protection,” the ASN said, adding that it had suspended its crisis cell dealing with the incident.

At least one person was killed and four injured in a blast at a nuclear site in the south of France on Monday as the government sought to play down fears of a radioactive leak.  

France’s state nuclear regulator had said earlier that there was a risk of a leak after the blast at Codolet in the Rhone Valley near the southern city of Nimes.  

Despite killing one person and wounding at least four more, the blast “did not cause any radioactive leak”, a spokesman at the energy ministry said.  

National electricity provider EDF confirmed the initial death toll following the explosion in an oven at the site.  

One of the injured is in a serious condition, ASN said.  

The blast hit the Centraco nuclear waste treatment centre belonging to EDF subsidiary Socodei, said a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Commissariat (CEA).  

“Initial reports suggest there was an explosion in an oven used to melt metallic low- and very low-level radioactive waste,” the ASN said.  

An EDF spokesman said: “This is an industrial accident, not a nuclear accident.”

“In this kind of oven, there are two sorts of waste: metallic waste such as valves, pumps and tools and combustible waste such as technicians’ work outfits or gloves,” the spokesman said.  

An expert at the Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety in Paris, Olivier Isnard, said radioactive levels in the oven were only around 17 becquerels per kilo — “very, very low” — at the time of the blast.  

“We don’t expect there to be an impact on the environment,” Isnard said, adding that samples would be taken from grass, soil and dust on cars to confirm this.  

The interior ministry said that no one was evacuated from near the site nor were any workers confined following the blast.  

Those injured “have not been contaminated” and the fatality was caused by the explosion, the ministry said.  

Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciuscko-Morizet was due to arrive at the site on Monday afternoon, her ministry said, “to help carry out a precise evaluation of the possible radiological impact of this accident”.  

“For the time being, no exterior impact has been detected,” a source at the ministry said.  

“There are several detectors on the outside and none of them detected anything, the building is sound,” an advisor at the ministry told AFP, adding that “we do not yet know what caused the blast”.  

The site is around 20 kilometres north of the historic city of Avignon which is thronged with tourists at this time of the year.  

EDF’s share price dropped over six percent on the news of the blast.  

France said in June it would invest €1 billion ($1.4 billion at the time) in future nuclear power development while boosting research into security.  

France produces most of its energy from nuclear power. Some countries, notably its EU neighbour Germany, have rejected nuclear power after the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan.  

Environmental lobby group Greenpeace demanded total and immediate transparency from the authorities.  

“It’s essential for local populations to be informed in real time about the situation and possible radioactive discharge,” said campaigner Yannick Rousselet.  

He pointed out that the site was not covered by the audit of French nuclear sites ordered after the Fukushima disaster nor had it been part of the ASN’s latest round of inspections.

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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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