• France's news in English

Who's flying drones over France’s nuclear plants?

Ben McPartland · 6 Nov 2014, 15:14

Published: 06 Nov 2014 15:14 GMT+01:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

France’s state-run power company EDF rang alarm bells last week when it announced it had filed a complaint with police after detecting the small unmanned aerial vehicles zipping over not one, not two, but seven atomic plants in October.

Since then, more have been spotted and there have been at least 16 fly-overs throughout France, usually at night, leaving jittery authorities clueless as to who is piloting these helicopter-type machines at a time of heightened vigilance in the face of terror threats from Islamic extremists.

France’s minister for the environment Ségolène Royal admitted this week that authorities didn’t have a clue who might be flying drones over power stations, which is illegal in France.

On Wednesday it appeared the mystery might have been solved when three youths – two men and a woman – were caught red-handed carrying a drone, just 100 metres from the power plant at Belleville-sur-Loire.

However, on Thursday authorities appeared to dismiss their involvement with the series of drone of flights that has caused so much consternation.

So who is manning the controls of the drones and should we be worried?

“The first thing to say is that it’s not people having a bit of fun; the people behind this are professionals,” author and air safety expert Christophe Naudin tells The Local.

“The drones used are worth up to $30,000 and can be operated from a long distance away, and can work on auto-pilot," Naudin says. “These are not the type of drones used by amateurs to take films, they are used by real pros.”

Naudin dismissed the idea that Islamist terrorists could be behind the flights, suggesting it was much more likely that environmental extremists were responsible.

The finger of blame was immediately pointed at Greenpeace, who have long campaigned against the use of nuclear power in France, and regularly carry out protest stunts to highlight a weakness in security around the country’s nuclear plants.  

“If it’s not Greenpeace, it could be a group acting for Greenpeace,” says Naudin. “There are movements who think Greenpeace are too soft and need to be more extreme.

“If it’s not [Greenpeace] then it could be a group linked closely to them. They have the funding to carry out this kind of operation, but could have asked another group to do it so it doesn’t affect them,” he said.

Naudin says whoever is behind it, the stunt is aimed at focusing the public’s attention on the security, or perhaps lack of it, around nuclear power stations.

“They want to scare the public and create some kind of psychosis and it appears to be working,” said Naudin, who believes the group may raise the stakes in the coming weeks.

“They’ll want to do something more impressive to show they have the capacity to drop something, like a paint bomb, on to the plant. It would be a symbolic act,” he said.

But should we be worried about the prospect something far more deadly being dropped on to a nuclear power station from a drone?

“At the moment these type of drones are too small to have the capacity to carry enough explosives to damage the structure of a nuclear plant," Naudin says. “But I’m not saying this won’t change in the future."

France's nuclear plants are built to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707-type plane – a mid-sized aircraft that carries up to 189 passengers – but Naudin said the prospect of a huge modern passenger plane like an A380 crashing into the site would constitute a real security threat.

Naudin warned that such drones could target adjacent buildings not designed to withstand a huge shock, such as administrative offices, which would create a "psychological shock."

Story continues below…

He believes the government, which has already launched a probe into the flights, will be forced to act by bringing down the drones using lasers that can melt the devices.

In France, aircraft are not allowed to fly within a five-kilometre (three-mile) radius and a 1,000-metre altitude of a nuclear plant.

France, the world's most nuclear-dependent country, operates 58 reactors and has been a leading international cheerleader for atomic energy.

For their part, Greenpeace says it has nothing to do with the stunt, with a spokesman for the environmental group telling The Local on Thursday that “we insist we are not involved in these flights whatsoever”.

Asked who they think might be behind them, he said: “It’s not our job to answer this question. It’s up to the French authorities to provide an answer and also to ensure the safety of the nuclear sites.

“They should not take the easy option and blame anti-nuclear movements."

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
France to clear 'Jungle' migrant camp Monday
Migrants will be bussed from the camp to some 300 temporary accommodation centres around France. Photo: Denis Charlet/ AFP

The "Jungle" migrant camp on France's northern coast will be cleared of its residents on Monday before being demolished, authorities said Friday.

How life for expats in France has changed over the years
A market in Eymet, southwestern France. Photo: AFP

Foreigners in France explain how life has changed over the years.

London calling for Calais youths, but only a chosen few
Photo: AFP

Dozens of Calais minors are still hanging their hopes on help from the UK, but not all will be so lucky.

17 different ways to talk about sex in French
Photo: Helga Weber/Flickr

Fancy a quick run with the one-legged man?

Yikes! This is what a rat-infested French jail looks like
Photo: YouTube/France Bleu TV.

This video is not for sufferers of ratophobia (or musophobia as the condition is officially called).

France to allow Baby Jesus in Town Halls this Christmas
Photo: AFP

Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are safe to go on display again this year, it seems.

National Front posts locations of migrants in French town
The National Front courts controversy. Photo: AFP

"Local tax payers have a right to know," says local far-right party chief.

Paris thieves use tear gas to steal €500,000 of watches
Photo: AFP

The thieves pretended to be couriers then threatened staff with tear gas to get the watches.

Bataclan survivor recounts attack in chilling drawings
Photo: BFMTV screengrab

One survivor has recounted the horrific night through illustrations.

Anger among French police grows as Hollande vows talks
French police demonstrate on the Champs Elysées. Photo: AFP

A fourth night of protests shows government efforts to ease anger among French police have been fruitless.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
The ups and downs of being both French and English
How Brexit vote has changed life for expats in France
Twelve French insults we'd love to have in English
What's on in France: Ten of the best events in October
jobs available