'It feels like a sci-fi film' - accidents tarnish nuclear dream

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sylvie Eymard's Provence farmhouse kitchen should be the picture of French rural calm. But the stockpiles of bottled water, disinfectant rinse and disposable paper plates hint at something strange.

For the past two weeks, Eymard, 41, and her children, 13 and seven, have had a phobia of taps. To wash up, they go out to the yard and fill a bowl from a specially delivered plastic tank of purified water on a fork-lift tractor. They carry the water up to the bathroom to wash. Even the dog drinks bottled water, and it is left out for the birds.

"I feel as if everything's constantly dirty," Eymard said, her hands deep in soapy lather scrubbing plates.

The view from the house over the fields is dominated by the nearby cooling towers of the Tricastin site, a nuclear power plant run by EDF, the company which is poised to buy British Energy and take control of most UK nuclear stations.

Next to the plant is a nuclear treatment centre run by a subsidiary of Areva, the nuclear group which hopes to design many of the new British reactors. Last month an accident at the treatment centre during a draining operation saw liquid containing untreated uranium overflow out of a faulty tank. About 75kg of uranium seeped into the ground and into the Gaffiere and Lauzon rivers which flow into the Rhône. Eymard's house is 100 metres from one of these streams.

Like a handful of rural homes near the nuclear site, hers is plumbed into the local groundwater from wells. For 20 years she has drunk from the tap. But after the incident there was a ban on drinking the groundwater, using it to water fields - as all local farmers do - or swimming or fishing in local lakes and streams. Since then, Eymard feels like she is in an episode of The Simpsons, in a Springfield where people's trust has been abused by haphazard mistakes. "It feels like a science fiction film where experts constantly come to examine and film the people who've been exposed."

At the centre for adults with learning disabilities where she works, some have seen her on the TV news and innocently asked for her autograph. At 10.30am on the dot, two men in green overalls from the nuclear site appear at her door to collect the daily sample of water from her tap to analyse it for uranium. Levels have fluctuated daily.

Even after the official ban was lifted this week and the families' urine samples tested normal, Eymard won't drink from the tap. "I always trusted that nuclear was totally secure. But now I wonder, have there been other accidents in the past we haven't been told about?"

The nuclear site at Bollène sits in a picturesque corner of Provence between the lavender fields and cypress trees that stretch north to the nougat capital of Montélimar and to the historic town of Avignon 30 miles to the south, which was hosting its famous theatre festival when the spillage occurred.

Until now most locals have accepted the plant as a risk-free part of everyday life in nuclear-dependent France. More than 80% of France's electricity is generated by the country's 58 nuclear reactors - the world's highest ratio. But the leak has shaken French trust in nuclear safety and embarrassed Nicolas Sarkozy as he crusades for a French-led world renaissance in atomic power.

The president wants to export French nuclear know-how around the world, including to Britain where nuclear power supplies 19% of electricity, and London and Paris are to cooperate on a new generation of nuclear power plants. Areva, 90% state-owned, is at the heart of foreign cooperation agreements not just with Europe but countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and Libya. Last year it clinched the biggest commercial nuclear power contract on record, worth €8bn (£6.3bn), to supply China with two reactors and provide nuclear fuel for nearly two decades.

Areva has been criticised by France's nuclear safety watchdog over the Tricastin leak for not adequately informing local authorities and for unsatisfactory measures and operational procedures. The leak rated at level one of the seven-stage scale of nuclear incidents.

It was detected on the night of July 7 but the town hall and locals who continued to drink water contaminated with uranium were not informed until the following afternoon. Areva's chief executive, Anne Lauvergeon, called the leak an "anomaly" which posed no danger to humans or the environment. The treatment plant has been shut and the subsidiary's director removed.

But in recent days there have been other, lesser incidents at nuclear sites. In Romans-sur-Isère, north of Tricastin, at another site run by an Areva subsidiary, officials discovered a burst underground pipe which had been broken for years and did not meet safety standards. A tiny amount of lightly enriched uranium leaked but not beyond the plant. This week, about 100 staff at Tricastin's nuclear reactor number four were contaminated by radioactive particles that escaped from a pipe. EDF described the contamination as "slight".

The French government has now ordered tests on the groundwater around all nuclear sites in France. The environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, said there were 86 level-one nuclear incidents in France last year and 114 in 2006.

People living near the Tricastin plant remain concerned. In basil and coriander fields farmed by the extended Eymard family not far from the nuclear site, part of the crop was ruined after wilting during the ban on using contaminated water. The herbs, which are sold to make frozen seasoning, have been tested for radioactivity and cleared.

Roger Eymard, 69, a retired farmer, now washes by pouring purified water into the shower fitting of his camper van parked in a stable. "Nuclear was progress and we wanted that. We thought people were competent. Now we ask, were there previous incidents we weren't told about?"

France's IRSN nuclear safety institute has pinpointed high levels of uranium in the groundwater that it said could not have been caused by the recent leak alone. A separate commission raised the possibility that this contamination could be linked to military nuclear waste at the Tricastin plant from 1964 to 1976.

The area's image has been so dented that the nearby Rhône Valley wine makers whose label is Coteaux du Tricastin want to change their name. In nearby Bollène, sales of bottled water have soared despite assurances that the tap water is unaffected. Some people have even asked chemists for iodine tablets, recommended for a nuclear emergency.

Not far from the nuclear site, Emilie Dubois, 61, sat by her luxury swimming pool framed by fig trees, poolside bar, shower and designer outdoor kitchen. But for two weeks the cover has been on as the family ordered tests on radioactivity levels in the pool water.

The day the emergency water ban was announced, more than 50 people swimming in a local lake were ordered out and fled. "It was as if there was a shark attack," one said.

Dubois was in her pool with her grandchildren when a town hall official arrived to tell her of a ban on watering with groundwater. He said he had orders not to give an explanation. She assumed it was a drought warning and got back in the pool. Only from television that night did the family learn of the leak. The pool, filled with local groundwater, was a potential contamination zone. It has now tested safe to swim in.

Her husband is a retired engineer from the plant and her sons work in the industry. "I've never questioned the safety of nuclear," she said. She has resumed watering her vegetable patch and ate freshly picked salad for lunch. "It's organic but it's been watered with the groundwater after the leak. Why would I eat anyone else's tomatoes that weren't organic? Although there are thoughts at the back of my mind as I'm eating."

Sarkozy recently announced that France will build a second new-generation nuclear reactor, a European pressurised water reactor or EPR. He said nuclear power was France's best answer to soaring energy prices and global warming. The Green party attacked the EPR as "useless, dangerous and expensive", saying: "France is becoming a nuclear showroom for Sarkozy the sales rep and Areva."

Not far from the stream that was contaminated from the Tricastin leak, Joel Bernard sat in his farmhouse tallying the loss to his carrots, radishes, turnips and cherries which couldn't be watered during the ban. "Until last week, it was paradise here," he said. "I don't want to return to the rural past. But something like this creates a kind of suspicion."

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