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What to do in the case of a nuclear alert in France

France has a large nuclear sector, which has helped it be more independent when it comes to energy. However the power source is not without risk - here is the French emergency protocol and what to do if you heard the sirens.

Nuclear power plants, like this one in eastern France, could cause huge loss of life in the case of an accident.
France relies heavily on energy produced by nuclear power plants. Photo by JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK / AFP

There are 18 nuclear power plants in France, with a total of 56 reactors, and plans to build more. The first nuclear plant opened in France in 1962. 

According to the French government, accidents can occur in the nuclear plants themselves, during the transport of radioactive substances, as the result of an leak of radiation into the environment and at facilities where uranium is produced, conditioned or stocked.  

In some parts of France, there’s also the potential for radiation to drift in from another country.

Because of its large nuclear sector, France has a detailed emergency protocol:

If you live or work within 10km of a nuclear plant, there are a number of measures you can take to prepare:

  • Pick up information brochures from your local mairie (town hall);
  • Pick up iodine tablets from a pharmacy partnered with the town hall – you will need proof of address; 
  • Organise an emergency kit with your identity documents and any other important paperwork, medicine, first-aid equipment, clothes, a battery radio with extra batteries, food and drink. 

It’s worth also knowing the relevant emergency numbers to call – Emergency in France: Who to call and what to say 

In the case of a nuclear accident, you will be alerted by sirens.

In most towns and cities these are tested on the first Wednesday of the month, the test siren goes on for 1 minute and 41 seconds, but if the emergency is real this will be three spells of one-minute 41-seconds, broken by a five-second pause.

A 30-second siren indicates the end of any alert.

However, some areas of the country have their own distinct alert signals for nuclear incidents, which is why you should contact your local mairie for information

If you hear the long siren, you should take the following steps:

  • Make sure you are in a building, ideally with concrete walls. Close all doors and windows and cut any air conditioning. 
  • If you are driving when an alert goes off, get into a building as soon as possible. Vehicles are not adequate protection. 
  • Avoid touching things outside as much as possible. If it has been raining, put outside anything that has got wet (such as umbrellas, shoes, coats) while out of doors
  • Stay informed from reliable news sources – eg French public radio services. If you’re looking on social media follow only official accounts for public bodies such as mairies, police or government ministers. Public authorities will issue instructions on what to do – notably whether or not to consume iodine tablets – via the media. It is recommended that you get information from public service broadcasters (either online, on the radio or TV), specifically France Bleu, France Info, France Télévisions.
  • Don’t fetch your children from school once you hear the sirens – school staff are trained in how to protect them. Don’t search for other family members who are not at home. 
  • Avoid using the phone to keep the airwaves free for emergency services.
  • Only take iodine tablets, which help prevent radiation from being absorbed by your thyroid gland, if local authorities instruct you to do so. If you don’t have iodine tablets at home, local authorities will organise an emergency distribution. Priority will be given to pregnant women and children under the age of 18. 
  • Prepare for evacuation from the zone. Have your emergency kit ready. 
  • During evacuation, follow instructions from the local authority. 

In the period following an accident, once you are safely sheltered inside, you should:

  • Remain calm – public authorities will handle those who have been potentially exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and make them undergo medical examination
  • Follow the news closely and signal your presence to the local Centre d’accueil et d’Information du public (CAI), which has been set up in your commune. Details how to do this will be included in information brochures distributed by the mairie. If you can’t reach the CAI, contact the mairie itself. 

If you live near a nuclear site but beyond a 10km radius, you may be living within a Zone de protection des populations (ZPP).

If you live in the vicinity of a nuclear plant, you should check with your local mairie to find out if you live in one of these zones. If you do, then you should follow the following steps, post-accident:

  • Local authorities will ban the consumption of food produced in the area since the accident. You should survive on food you already have stocked at home and contact the mairie to find out where food deliveries will take place. Don’t go hunting or fishing for food. 
  • Unless informed otherwise, you can still consume tap water.
  • Specialists will visit your home to clean the building exterior of radioactive particles. You will likely receive instructions on how to clean the inside of your home. 
  • Avoid green spaces and forests which are likely to store large amounts of radiation. 
  • Do not evacuate unless asked to do so by the local authority. 

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Traffic warnings for France ahead of holiday weekend

This weekend represents the first chance to 'faire le pont' and have a long holiday weekend - and the French seem set to make the most of it with warnings of extremely heavy traffic from Wednesday.

Traffic warnings for France ahead of holiday weekend

Thursday, May 26th marks the Christian festival of Ascension and is a public holiday in France.

More importantly, it’s the first time this year that French workers have had the opportunity to faire le pont (do the bridge) and create a long weekend.

In France, most public holidays fall on different days each year and if they happen to fall on the weekend then there are no extra days off work.

This year that happened on New Year’s Day (a Saturday) and both of the early May public holidays (the workers’ holiday on May 1st and VE Day on May 8th, which both fell on a Sunday).

READ ALSO Why 2022 is a bad year for public holidays

But as Ascension is on a Thursday, workers have the option to take a day of annual leave on Friday and therefore create a nice four-day weekend.

And it appears that many are planning on doing just that, as the traffic forecaster Bison futé is predicting extremely heavy traffic from Wednesday evening, as people prepare to make their after-work getaway and head to the coast, the countryside or the mountains to fully profit from their holiday weekend.

According to Bison futé maps, the whole country is coloured red – very heavy traffic – on both Wednesday and Thursday as people take to the roads to leave the cities.

Map: Bison futé

Meanwhile Sunday is coloured black – the highest level, meaning extremely heavy traffic and difficult driving conditions – across the whole country. 

Map: Bison futé

If you were hoping to take the train instead you might be out of luck, SNCF reports that most TGV services are sold out for over the holiday weekend.