French environmentalists alarmed after fresh nuclear incident

Thursday, July 24, 2008

PARIS (AFP) — French environmentalists sounded the alarm Thursday after the third incident this month at a nuclear plant left 100 employees contaminated.

"This new incident shows that nuclear energy, which is presented as clean and safe, remains a dangerous, polluting and poorly controlled energy," a spokesman for environmental group Greenpeace told AFP.

Around 100 employees at the Tricastin nuclear plant in southern France's Vaucluse region were "slightly contaminated" Wednesday by radioactive particles that escaped from a pipe, according to the EDF power firm.

It said the workers at the site, which lies in France's popular Provence summer tourist destination, were exposed to radiation far below permitted levels, and were able to return home after undergoing medical checks.

Officials at the site said the incident would have no consequences for either the workers or the environment and that it was rated at level zero on the seven-point scale of seriousness of nuclear accidents.

But the CRIIRAD independent commission on research into radioactivity said the legal annual limit for exposure to radioactivity was not "a level at which risk begins but a level of maximum permitted risk."

Annie Thebaud-Mony, a researcher at France's INSERM medical research institute, said that "emphasising that the accident is minor... is a way of downplaying the fact that the employees are exposed to radioacitivity."

The workers therefore run a higher risk of getting cancer, she told Le Parisien newspaper.

On July 8 people living near the Tricastin site were told not to drink water or eat fish from nearby rivers after liquid uranium from the nuclear plant polluted the local water supply.

On July 18 nuclear safety authorities said a broken pipe at another nuclear fuel plant in southeast France had caused a radioactive leak but no damage to the environment.

After that incident French nuclear safety authorities and the nuclear group Areva admitted that security for nuclear power in France -- which has a total of 58 nuclear sites -- needed revamping.

Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo said he wanted to review all security measures in the nuclear industry, carry out tests on the ground water near all reactors and assess the state of waste storage sites.

France is home to the world's second largest network of nuclear reactors after the United States and the facilities generate more than 80 percent of its electricity.

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