Monday, August 18, 2008

For years, Sophie Delmas took her horse and her four dogs for a swim in the Trop-Long lake, a stone’s throw away from the Tricastin nuclear site in southeast France. Not anymore.

About 163 pounds of uranium leaked July 8 from a nuclear-waste plant owned by Areva SA at the site behind her mother’s home in Bollene. Tests showed that the groundwater was contaminated even before the leak. On July 18, Paris-based Areva announced a second case, saying uranium may have seeped out of a broken pipe for years at a plant in Roman-sur-Isere, 62 miles north of Bollene.

“Who knows, there may be nuclear waste under the house,” said Ms. Delmas, 23, who says she’s concerned that she and her animals may be susceptible to cancer.

The leaks are shaking French people’s long-held faith in nuclear safety in their country, which gets more than 80 percent of its electricity from atomic power - the highest percentage of any country in the world. The incidents come just days after President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the construction of the country’s 60th reactor to show that France is leading a global revival in nuclear usage.

“The incidents were a painful wake-up call for many,” said Roland Desbordes, chairman of Valence-based radioactivity research association CRIIRAD. “They brought to the fore the risks of nuclear power, which French people had forgotten, and highlighted the weaknesses of control and alert procedures.”

Public opposition hasn’t been an issue in France as the government built a network of 58 reactors - with another under construction - in three decades.

That may change. While two-thirds of the French want nuclear power to “ensure energy independence,” according to an IFOP poll published July 21 in Le Monde, 81 percent said the Tricastin leak was “serious” and 70 percent don’t trust the government to alert them to the risks.

In Bollene, where the medieval town’s 14,000 inhabitants have lived in the shadow of one of France’s oldest nuclear plants for 30 years, some residents say their trust in the safety of the site, the town’s main employer, has been eroded.

Ms. Delmas’ 50-year-old mother, Elisabeth Serinian, and two other families have filed a lawsuit. Tests on one of Ms. Serinian’s wells showed 70 micrograms of uranium per liter on July 9, the state radiologic protection agency, IRSN, said. The acceptable level set by the Geneva-based World Health Organization is 15 micrograms.

While the inhabitants were told the leak won’t have a significant health or environmental impact, fishing in the nearby Gaffiere River was barred and many people, including Ms. Serinian, were ordered not to use tap water. It’s the first time such restrictive measures were imposed, Mr. Desbordes said.

Ms. Serinian says she was asked to provide urine samples. “I told myself, nobody knows how this is going to end,” she said.

At 10 p.m. on July 7, uranium-waste liquid overflowed from a tank being emptied for a cleanup at Areva’s Socatri plant at the Tricastin site, the company said in a statement July 17. The incident didn’t trigger any alarms because the liquid fell into a containment tank. At 4:45 a.m., employees noticed water leaking through cracks in the tank, Areva said. The company said it then waited three hours for tests before alerting the authorities.

In all, it took Areva nine hours to notify the authorities, who in turn took another 11 hours to inform the town’s people, France’s nuclear safety agency said.

“We were alerted late, left alone with very little information,” Bollene Mayor Marie-Claude Bompard said.

France’s nuclear-safety agency ranked the incident at 1 on a scale that goes as high as 7 for the most serious risk. It suspended a part of the plant’s operations.

A week after the leak, Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo called for tests on groundwater near all nuclear plants. Areva replaced the head of the Socatri unit, citing a “lack of coordination.”

“Tricastin is at least a level 2,” said Mr. Desbordes. “Level 1 usually means no environmental impact.”

Meanwhile, winemakers around Bollene selling Cote du Rhone under the name “Coteaux du Tricastin” want to change the brand. Other residents are considering more drastic actions.

“I don’t trust the system anymore,” said Sylvie Eymard, 44, a social worker who plans to leave Bollene.

“But where can we go?” asked Eric Mancellon, 41, who was barred for four days from irrigating the vegetables and fruits he sells. “In France, we’re surrounded by nuclear plants.”

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