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French nuclear plants pose grave security risk

July 5, 2018

Outsourcing, vulnerability to terror attacks and operator stress have been cited as risks to France's reactor network. The new study was compiled after Greenpeace orchestrated a number of break-ins to highlight risks.

Flamanville Nuclear Power Plant in France
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Berenger

France is the most nuclear dependent country in the world, with 75 percent of its energy produced by 58 reactors at 19 nuclear power plants. Many of those plants are ageing and even new reactors have been plagued by a number of serious problems.

In February, after a string of break-ins carried out by the environmental group Greenpeace to illustrate the vulnerability of France's nuclear power plants, parliament began an investigation into the issue. The findings of the report were published on Thursday.

Over the past five months a cross-party parliamentary commission conducted interviews with experts and visited a number of sites across France as well as Japan.

Read more: Nuclear waste: Where to store it for eternity?

Three major risk factors

What the commission found was not comforting. Lawmakers found three major areas of risk: A disproportionate dependence on sub-contractors for construction and maintenance; vulnerability to terrorist attack and possible operator induced disaster, what the report labeled "Germanwings syndrome" — in reference to a suicidal pilot who intentionally crashed a passenger jet into a French mountainside in 2015, killing all on board.

Parliamentarians noted that the number of safety incidents has "risen steadily" in recent years, and recommended 33 steps to ward against such incidents. These included a decrease in outsourcing, greater police protection and psychiatric supervision for operators.

France sticking with nuclear power

'Nuclear power plants are not chocolate factories'

The report also pointed to the problematic concept adhered to by operators who claim that certain eventualities need not be prepared for because they are simply not possible   most notably malfunction and material failure.

Read more: Nuclear accidents make mutant bugs and birds

France's EDF (Electricity of France), a mainly state-owned entity and one of the world's largest electricity producers, operates all of the country's reactors. EDF recently took over Areva, a majority state-owned supplier after Areva became mired in financial troubles and in scandal after it was discovered that the company had been falsifying manufacturing records at its Le Creusot Forge for decades. The company now operates under the name Framatome.

Cattenom Nuclear Power Plant at the German border
France's neighbors also worry about the safety of its nuclear power plants, such as this one at Cattenom, near the border to Germany and LuxembourgImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Karaba

It's a bird, it's a plane … No, it's a drone in a Superman outfit

The threat posed by terrorists was underscored this week when Greenpeace activists flew a drone outfitted with a Superman cape into the Bugey nuclear plant near Lyon. In the filmed stunt, the drone crashed into the side of a building housing the site's highly radioactive spent fuel storage pool.

Although EDF claims authorities intercepted one of the two drones on site, Greenpeace said France's nuclear power plants are, "easily accessible and extremely vulnerable to external attacks." The parliamentary report seemed to agree, noting, "French nuclear installations have not been designed to withstand terrorist aggression, simply because terrorism was not an issue at the time (they were built)."

Unanswered questions

EDF claims the report contains "a number of errors," and has promised a response by mid-July. Nevertheless, parliamentarians complained that many of their questions and requests went unanswered by EDF and the French state, both of which cited national security concerns as grounds for their reticence. Lawmakers felt left in the dark by the approach, with Barbara Pompili of the ruling Republic on the Move (REM) saying: "We have the feeling that a lot of work is being done to protect the plants but we cannot verify it."

Although President Emmanuel Macron pledged to follow through with his predecessor Francois Hollande's plan to cut French dependence on nuclear power, replacing it with renewable energy, he has thus far failed to take steps in that direction.

js/kms (AFP, Reuters)