France orders probe at all nuclear sites

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The French government on Thursday ordered an investigation into the water table around all of France’s 58 nuclear reactors in an effort to dispel fears raised by a leak from a treatment plant run by Areva in southern France.

Jean-Louis Borloo, ecology minister, has asked an independent committee to carry out the probe to stem mounting public concern over nuclear waste management after a low-grade leak at the Socatri treatment plant at Tricastin focused public attention on a still unexplained, older contamination of the water table.

“I do not want people to feel we are hiding anything, I want [the committee] to look at the radioactivity and environmental situation at all nuclear sites and I particularly want the state of the ground water tables around all French nuclear stations to be looked at,” Mr Borloo said in an interview in Le Parisien newspaper. “We have to carry out a review of the sites and I expect an analysis from the committee.”

Areva, the French nuclear group, and safety authorities insist the incident presents no threat. Government officials on Thursday played down the significance of the Socatri leak. “This is not a nuclear incident,” said the Ecology Ministry.

The revelation comes as President Nicolas Sarkozy is promoting French nuclear expertise abroad. In April, on a visit to Tunisia, he defended his campaign to bring nuclear power to developing economies and said French technology was “the safest in the world”.

The ASN has accused Areva, which handles waste treatment and fuel reprocessing for the nuclear sites, of “human negligence” and “dysfunctional” processes after storage tanks containing water from a nearby uranium enrichment plant overflowed on July 7. The basin holding the storage tanks was faulty after renovation and 30 cubic metres of liquid contaminated with natural uranium was released into two rivers and topsoil.

The ASN, which ordered the plant to shut down, has passed its findings to the prosecutor’s office, which will decide whether the incident merits a criminal investigation.

Areva announced a new manager for the Socatri site and published the findings of an internal inquiry into the incident, which said managers had taken too long to alert safety authorities to the leak. “We wish it had not happened,” Areva said. “But it never had any impact on people’s health.”

The ASN and the IRSN, which conducts safety tests on nuclear sites, said the leak had no serious environmental or health consequences. Residents and farmers were barred from using mains water as a safety precaution.

The incident has also brought to light older contamination in the region’s water table, which the IRSN has said could not have come from the Socatri leak.

Authorities have long been aware of the contamination, which according to experts could be natural, but it has raised questions over a military nuclear waste installation dating from the 1960s, which since 2006 has been managed by Areva.

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