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NORTH KOREA

France slams North Korea nuclear bomb test

French President Francois Hollande on Tuesday strongly condemned North Korea's nuclear test and said Paris would back firm action by the UN Security Council.

France slams North Korea nuclear bomb test
South Korean passengers at the Seoul train station watch TV news reporting North Korea's apparent nuclear test on February 12th (Photo: Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP)

"I condemn in the strongest terms the latest nuclear test by North Korea," he said in a statement, adding that France "will back strong action by the UN Security Council and will work to this end with its partners".

Hollande called on Pyongyang to "unconditionally abstain from staging any acts which will heighten tension in the Korean peninsula and impact on peace and international security."

He also urged North Korea to abide by "its international obligations and proceed to completely and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear and ballistic programme in a manner which is verifiable".

The United States, China and Russia joined other world powers in a chorus of condemnation of a test carried out in defiance of stark international warnings.

US President Barack Obama called for "swift and credible" action after the underground blast as main ally China expressed its "firm opposition" to the nuclear test and Russia urged Pyongyang to halt its "illegal actions."

UN Chief Ban Ki-moon said he was "gravely concerned about the negative impact of this deeply destabilizing act" as the Security Council prepared to hold an emergency session at 9am in New York (1400 GMT).

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meanwhile called the test a "grave threat" to his country that "cannot be tolerated," while Britain called for a "robust response" and Germany said further sanctions should be considered.

Even Iran — under harsh UN sanctions over its own controversial nuclear program — used the occasion to call for a nuclear weapons-free world, while defending its own atomic program, which it claims is entirely peaceful.

The provocative North Korean test flew in the face of the UN Security Council's warning last month of a "significant" response to any such move, and came hours before Obama was to deliver his annual State of the Union address.

Obama called the test a "highly provocative act" that — following the North's December 12th ballistic missile launch — undermined regional stability and violated UN Security Council resolutions.

"North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs constitute a threat to US national security and to international peace and security," Obama said in a statement issued shortly before 2am Washington time (0700 GMT).

"The danger posed by North Korea's threatening activities warrants further swift and credible action by the international community," he said, adding that the United States would do whatever was necessary to defend its allies.

The United States, China, Russia and the other major powers face intense pressure to act over North Korea's defiance of sanctions imposed after previous tests in 2006 and 2009.

North Korea said it staged a successful test of a "miniaturized" bomb in a declaration that brought immediate global protests, with the UN nuclear watchdog calling it a "clear violation" of Security Council resolutions.

The UN secretary general also condemned the test as "a clear and grave violation" of the resolutions and called on North Korea to "reverse course."

China, the isolated North's closest ally, expressed its "firm opposition" to the nuclear test in a foreign ministry statement that urged Pyongyang to "honor its commitment to denuclearization."

In the Asia-Pacific region, nuclear-armed India called the test a "matter of deep concern," while Australia, the Philippines and Taiwan condemned the blast.

Beijing had made a special effort to try to head off the move, according to a UN diplomat who has taken part in recent consultations.

"The Chinese gave the North Koreans a strong warning against carrying out a test as it became apparent that it was imminent," said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"What the North Koreans have done now is a big challenge to the Chinese," the diplomat said, adding that China, Russia and the United States were likely to quickly agree on a tough response.

The envoy added that sanctions may not be agreed upon on Tuesday, but the"intention" would be made clear.

It took weeks for the Security Council to agree on statements and sanctions after North Korea's nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, and North Korea's sinking of a South Korean warship in 2010.

China has traditionally shielded its neighbour from international action, warning Western powers against any measures that could cause instability along its frontier.

But the Security Council scolded Pyongyang last month for the rocket launch it staged on December 12th, adding North Korea's state space agency, a bank, four trading companies and four individuals to its existing sanctions list.

China agreed to add to the resolution a threat of "significant action" in response to any future North Korean nuclear test.

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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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