French nuclear power is far from safe, and the government covered up effects of the Chernobyl disaster on French people. Susie Greaves
After the accident at Chernobyl in 1986, the French naturally wondered if something similar could happen in France. However the fact that it was a “Soviet” accident allowed the French to reassure themselves that their own nuclear industry was technologically superior and that, in any case, democratic controls would ensure the highest levels of safety. The accident at Fukushima has demolished those comforting assumptions. In a poll conducted post-Fukushima by Journal du Dimanche, 77% of French people said that they would like to see nuclear phased out . Despite the best propaganda efforts of the French nuclear industry, it appears the French are not convinced. Their trust in the nuclear industry and the government departments so closely associated with it was already badly eroded 25 years ago in the aftermath of the accident at Chernobyl.
In the days following the accident at Chernobyl, the French were told, more or less, that the radioactive cloud had miraculously stopped at the border. While Italian and German authorities were busy disposing of contaminated produce, France told its citizens that levels of radioactivity would need to be 10,000 or 100,000 times higher before they represented any danger . On 2 May 1986, in Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica, high levels of radioactivity were recorded at fire stations and a thick fog invaded the town causing people to close their windows; but the authorities claimed that there was no danger . Maps showing the progress of the radioactive cloud across France in April and May were doctored by SCPRI (Service central de protection contre les rayonnements ionisants). The worst example of disinformation occurred in May 1986 when SCPRI claimed an average of 8.5 Bq/m3 of Caesium 137 over France as a whole. In reality, even Western France which was least affected averaged 100 Bq/m3 while in areas of Eastern and Southern France, 40 000 Bq/m3 were measured .
Outraged by the government’s deceit and irresponsibility, a number of independent citizen associations sprang up to counter government propaganda in the case of future nuclear events. The most prominent of these, CRIIRAD (Commission de Recherche et d'Information Indépendantes sur la Radioactivité), wasset up by a number of scientists. CRIIRAD began measuring radiation in the weeks following Chernobyl and produced the definitive map of radiation levels all over France some years later. Members of CRIIRAD appear regularly in the media commenting on nuclear events, and their judgments are universally, if reluctantly, respected within France. They are currently working in Japan, measuring radiation levels and advising on radioprotection .
Dr Fauconnier from Balagne in Corsica, a founding member of CRIIRAD, was one of the first to alert the population to the extremely high levels of radioactivity in dairy produce and leafy vegetables on the island [6, 7]. When he sent samples to the mainland to be tested, those taken on the dates when rain fell and radioactive contamination was at its highest were conveniently “lost” for a few months. But even the samples that were returned showed extremely high levels of Iodine 131. In the next year he noted in his local farming community of Haute Balagne that of 50 calves in gestation in May 1986, 20 were still births and two were ill. In the winter of 1986/7, Corsican hospitals noted a significant increase in respiratory illnesses in babies born in the autumn who had been in utero in April and May. These findings confirmed research undertaken by Dr Sternglass at the University of Pittsburgh, showing that Iodine 131 is concentrated one hundred times more in the thyroid of a foetus that in an adult. Fauconnier has battled ever since with the authorities over their negligence in allowing contaminated foodstuffs to be consumed in the weeks and months following Chernobyl.
The Association Française de Maladies Thyroïde (AFMT) was formed in February 1999 by six individuals who believe their thyroid cancer was caused by exposure to Iodine 131 in the days following Chernobyl. Today, around 650 people including 100 from Corsica are involved in a legal battle with the French government, to recognise the true cause of their illness. In the court case brought by the AFMT in 2010 it was pointed out that prescriptions for the hormone replacement medicine Levothyrox have multiplied tenfold in France since 1986, clearly showing the impact of the nuclear catastrophe on the population . Still, the French government has refused to open a register of cancers that might show the link between illness and areas of contamination. But other doctors have compiled their own figures showing that the rate of thyroid cancer in Corsica between 1997 and 2002 was 13.8 to 23 cases per 100 000 per year compared to an average of 4.5 per 100 000 in the rest of Europe .
In his book about the safety of French nuclear power , Stephane Lhomme says that the best evidence that an accident like Chernobyl might happen in France does not come from anti-nuclear organisations but from “those best placed to evaluate the danger: directors of government bodies or international bodies, the nuclear lobby and its allies…” He cites legislation from 2003 giving the French government special powers during “nuclear crises.” Anyone giving information to fellow citizens about nuclear matters could face 5 years in prison and a 75 000 euros fine. Then in 2004, the French and other governments of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) increased the level of compensation payable in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. Finally in 2005, the programme FARMING (Food and Agriculture Restoration Management Involving Networked Groups) financed by the European community, the nuclear lobby and agro-business, began research in the Aube department in North Eastern France. The programme has two key aims: “… how to deal with contaminated food following a nuclear accident” and “… developing strategies to return contaminated lands to agricultural production while minimising the amount of wasted produce.” Lhomme concludes that the French government is “methodically, rationally, preparing to survive the worst eventuality.”
There are other reasons for fearing an accident in the nuclear industry. First, France’s ageing nuclear power plants are reaching the end of their life expectancy but are having their licences renewed. Second, EDF is no longer state-owned but a limited liability corporation with shares floated on the Paris stock exchange since November 2005. EDF prepared for that as early as January 2002 with drastic cuts totalling 300 million euros and reduced staffing levels .
The documentary film “Rien à signaler” (Nothing to Report) made in 2009 described the effects of the privatisation. For example, the maintenance of nuclear plants during their regular shut down periods is now sub-contracted and employs an army of 22 000 poorly trained and poorly paid “ nomads” who go from one nuclear plant to the next, undertaking the most dangerous work. They receive 60 euros a day and sleep in tents, cars and caravans. 80 % of radiation accidents involve this group of workers though they represent only 50 % of the workforce. There is no union representation, no reliable record of radiation received and little or no medical follow up .
Finally, there is the threat of climate change. Lhomme, whose book was published five years before Fukushima, notes that “…all energy installations can be hit by the violence of the elements but only nuclear installations put a whole continent in danger with consequences that last centuries, or even millennia” .
The French nuclear industry is supposedly overseen by the Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN) and a visit to their website reveals an astonishing level of detail about “incidents” on a daily basis in the 59 nuclear reactors. Between 10 000 and 12 000 events are identified in EDF'’s plants every year of which 600 to 800 are considered 'significant events' . However, we need to be careful how we interpret this apparent transparency. The INES (International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale) goes from 0 to 7. A Level O rating indicates “deviations”, Level 1 “anomalies”, Level 2 “incidents” Level 3 “near accidents”, and so on up to Level 7 for major accidents such as Chernobyl or Fukushima. Very few of France’s nuclear events are categorised above Level 1, and France has only had one Level 4 accident (1980 Saint Laurent des Eaux) in its entire history . The problem with the INES scale is that a narrowly avoided meltdown may be categorised at the same level as a small leak leading to local contamination. It is like comparing the damage done by reversing into your neighbour’s car and denting the bumper, to falling asleep on the motorway and thankfully waking up before a collision has occurred. Thus, the accident at Blayais in Gironde in 1999 was rated as Level 2 - “an incident” - on the INES scale for “Significant failures in safety provisions but with no actual consequences”. However, detailed examination of this accident shows how close France came to its own nuclear disaster. A very violent storm hit France on the night of 27th - 28th December 1999. The flood defences were breached and 100 million litres of water poured into the plant. Power from the external grid failed. Two of the four reactors went into shut down where key safety equipment failed due to flooding. Finally, one half of the emergency circuit cooling system failed though it held out long enough to bring the situation under control. Even local officials admitted at the time that they were close to a fuel meltdown and the similarities to Fukushima are obvious .
Floods, earthquakes, heat waves, and exceptional cold have all caused problems for the French nuclear industry, mostly in their effect on crucial cooling systems. However, many of the threats to safety involve faulty mechanisms which, because of the high level of standardisation in the French industry, affect large numbers of installations. In the 1990s the problem was sump-clogging which could seriously impair the emergency cooling system .
More recently the problems have concerned the control-rod clusters which, in the event of a power failure, should automatically drop and stop the reaction. But deformation of the rods due to vibration and stress means this does not always happen and in the event of emergency shut down, could have catastrophic results. In its own technical report EDF said that within the industry there was “evidence of serious and generalised exceeding of the safety criteria” .
These problems, and others, such as the porous concrete found in 34 of the containment structures of the 59 French reactors, take years, sometimes decades to be resolved. As recently as 2008, in the very week that the G8 and other leaders were pledging their allegiance to the ‘nuclear renaissance’ being heavily promoted by the industry, a series of nuclear accidents was sending shock waves throughout France, severely denting the façade of competence and safety that France had created around itself for the world to see ( Nuclear Renaissance Runs Aground, SiS 40). The Tricastin nuclear power station in southern France malfunctioned, resulting in 30 000 litres of a solution containing 12 % enriched uranium overflowing from a reservoir into the nearby Faffiere and Lauzon rivers, raising the concentration of uranium in the two rivers a thousand fold. That was only the first of a series of 9 blunders and leaks in France’s nuclear reactions in three weeks from 7 July.
Once more, we must ask whether the French have just been lucky not to have - as yet - experienced a catastrophe of Chernobyl proportions .
The ASN and other regulatory bodies keep a close eye on the endless mistakes, failures and even offences committed by the nuclear industry. The problems arise when action is needed. The relationship between the ASN and EDF does not inspire confidence. ASN is in constant communication with EDF but the tone of their letters illustrates only too clearly who is really in control.
For example in 2001, a full six years before France’s oldest power plant at Fessenheim reached its thirty year limit, the ASN wrote repeatedly to EDF reminding them of the need for rigorous inspections before a decision was taken about extending its licence . In the event, in 2007, EDF simply announced the extension of the licence in the media without any prior consultation with the ASN, leaving ASN mouthing vainly about EDF’s obligations to conduct its own safety inspections.
In 1995, the ASN recommended “rapid closure” of one building in particular at the huge nuclear experimental site at Cadarache, near Marseille, which was built on the Durance seismic fault. A full ten years passed before it was finally closed in 2005, after years of empty threats from ASN.
In 2003, EDF and the ASN were involved in an internal wrangle about the risk from earthquakes for its nuclear power stations, and EDF was accused in the press of falsifying seismic data for at least twelve of its nuclear power stations. For instance at Belleville, in Cher, EDF took as its reference, an earthquake that had occurred in 1079, rather than a more powerful one that had occurred in 1933. The work needed to improve safety in earthquake zones would have cost EDF 1.9 billion euros, and the issue highlighted once again how profitability is favoured over safety .
What can we conclude from all that about the safety of the French nuclear industry? No one can afford to ignore the lessons of Chernobyl and Fukushima. The first accident was caused by human failure: the second, by forces of nature beyond human control. France is not immune to either. The cost of ensuring the highest levels of safety is enormous, and perhaps that is why we see the French nuclear industry moving from a position in which a nuclear accident is unthinkable, to one in which the government and the nuclear lobby are preparing for just such an eventuality.
But will the French put up with it? The French people never voted for the development of the nuclear industry or for its continuation. They feel powerless and lacking in democratic control. Successive governments lied about the French, Algerian and Polynesian victims of French nuclear tests . They lied about the radiation levels in France following Chernobyl (see above) and even now refuse to acknowledge the health effects of that accident on their own population. They are routinely economical with the truth when faced with nuclear events that prove embarrassing. (The radioactivity involved in the accident on 12th September 2011 at Marcoule was 476 times higher than that acknowledged by the industry ).The employees of nuclear power stations, paid off in the early years with preferential electricity tariffs, are not so loyal now. Safety issues are at the core of their disaffection. The industry faces enormous problems in replacing a skilled workforce. “Today competence renewal is the first management concern”, states EDF’s Inspector General for Nuclear Safety . Several nuclear power plant sites reported that in the course of one year “they did not get a single response to their vacancy announcements.”
For all these reasons, the safety of the French nuclear industry cannot be vaunted with such confidence as it was in the last decades of the twentieth century. No-one really believes that a nuclear accident is impossible in France any more, least of all, as we have seen, the industry itself. The eyes of the world are on Japan where, in the next few decades, the government will face a crisis, in health and in its economy, as victims of the contamination resulting from Fukushima demand medical care and compensation. The Japanese will not be fobbed off with the minimal care that has been given to the victims of Chernobyl in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia  (see also  The Truth about Chernobyl, SiS 47). Yet even in those poverty stricken areas, the amount spent mitigating the effects of the Chernobyl accident is staggering. Over 20 year, the direct economic cost of that catastrophe to Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, exceeds 500 billion dollars, which in terms of the cost of living in the European Community represents more than 2000 billion Euros, as much, if not more, than the cost of construction of the world’s entire nuclear infrastructure . These are sobering figures that governments in France and elsewhere will find hard to ignore. As the saying goes “If you think safety is expensive, try an accident” .
The author lives in France and is a member of IndependentWHO, Sortir du Nucleaire and CRIIRAD. She is translating Wladimir Tchertkoff's book Le crime de Tchernobyl: le gulag nucleaire, published by Actes Sud 2006 from French into English.
Article first published 16/01/12
Got something to say about this page? Comment
There are 2 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.
Nina Galang Comment left 17th January 2012 09:09:39
As the American environmentalist Barry Commoner says, "If you do not produce it, it will not be there." He was referring, I believe, to pollutants like persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Similarly, if we want to be free of the risks from nuclear plants, from accidents and even from the routine operations of extracting and refining uranium and oeprations of nuclear plants, then we should not build nuclear plants. Advancements in renewable energy show that it is the answer! Nuclear is not renewable, contributes also to climate change from the other operations including those surrounding construction and of course, is a horrific threat to health and environment.
Todd Millions Comment left 21st January 2012 23:11:25
I once knew and worked with a chap who when he was in the french military(1960s-70s),was a power plant engineer on a base.they had a very large 50Mw desil engined emergency power plant of 5 piston motor units.These required a 5 miniute start warmup cycle-too last.He told me that roughly monthly at random though usually during the day,a klaxon would sound-and there generators would automatically roar up with no warning or idle start,too rated or full load. This was hell on the motors and no explination was ever given too the outraged engineers. He told me that all of the operators he met from similar plants had this happen constantly,he estimated that france had about 50 such -military base'emergency generators',actual and confirming info and run times,unavailable due to 'security'.His estimate was runs of 25-30% of time. Now of course,we have natural gas powered turbine generators,that have very quick cold start ramp up capability(that doesn't wreck them).So-How much russian methane does the oh so safe and economic french-"80% of energy"nuke program get fed into the wires via military emergency plants today?