French nuclear plants vulnerable to terror attacks, experts say

International experts warned on Tuesday about security shortcomings at French and Belgian nuclear plants that make them vulnerable to attack, in a worrying new report commissioned by the Greenpeace group.

French nuclear plants vulnerable to terror attacks, experts say
Photo: AFP

International experts warned on Tuesday about security shortcomings at French and Belgian nuclear plants that make them vulnerable to attack, in a report commissioned by the Greenpeace group.

France has the second-biggest fleet of nuclear plants in the world, after the United States, with 58 reactors providing 75 percent of the country's
electricity. Belgium has two.

The seven experts from France, Germany, Britain and the US — specialists in nuclear safety, proliferation, economics and radiation — looked at various
attack scenarios involving plants in both countries, some of which date back over three decades.

Noting the “very high level of threat to security in France and Europe” they said nuclear power plants were “without a doubt, a risk”.

For security reasons, anti-nuclear group Greenpeace did not publish the full version of the report, which it said it would share with authorities in
France, Belgium and neighbouring countries.

In a public summary, the experts noted that most of France's reactors were built before the rise of modern-day threats from non-state terror groups such as Islamic State or Al-Qaeda. 

“For these historical reasons, reinforcement against heavy attacks on civil engineering works and protection systems for nuclear safety was not — or only marginally — incorporated into the design of these facilities,” they said.

The dangers were “even more pronounced in the case of spent fuel pools”, which were not encased in confinement buildings like reactors, despite containing hundreds of tonnes of highly radioactive fuel.

'End the silence'

France has a total of 63 pools containing highly radioactive fuel rods that have been removed from reactors after their use.

The report said an attack on such a structure “could maximise the accident scenario in which fuel is uncovered, heats to the point of fusion and a
significant fraction of its radioactivity is released,” into the building and — given the building's lack of containment — into the wider environment.

The safety of France and Belgium's nuclear plants has been in the spotlight for years.

Belgian police investigating the November 2015 Paris terror attacks found 10 hours of video of the comings and goings of a senior Belgian nuclear

A year previously, the Doel 4 reactor, close to the Belgian port city of Antwerp, was shut down urgently after a leak in the turbine hall, caused by

In France, several mystery drone overflights were reported at various nuclear plants in 2014. No group ever claimed responsibility.

The head of Greenpeace France's anti-nuclear campaign, Yannick Rousselet, stressed the need to “end the silence on the risks that hang over nuclear plants.

“(France's state electricity supplier) EDF… cannot ignore the situation. It must take the security problem in hand by carrying out the work necessary to secure spent fuel pools,” he said.

EDF, in a statement, assured its nuclear plants were “safe, properly monitored and very well protected” and that it was constantly evaluating their resistance to criminal acts or terrorism.


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


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.