- Associated Press - Monday, September 12, 2011

PARIS — One person was killed and four injured in an explosion Monday at a nuclear waste facility, an accident authorities were quick to downplay but which caused environmentalists to push for rethinking nuclear policy amid worldwide jitters about Japan’s nuclear catastrophe.

The Nuclear Safety Authority said no radioactive leaks were detected after the blast shortly past noon at a furnace in the Centraco site, about 20 miles from the city of Avignon. One of the injured suffered severe burns.

The agency quickly pronounced the accident “terminated,” saying the situation had been brought under control in less than an hour.

The building that houses the furnace wasn’t damaged, no leaks were reported and residents who live near the site were not evacuated, the agency said in a statement.

An investigation has been opened to find out what went wrong, authorities said.

France is the world’s most nuclear-dependent nation. It relies on the 58 nuclear power plants that dot the country for about three-quarters of its total electricity, and it’s also a major exporter of nuclear technology throughout the world.

While the March meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant prompted other countries to re-evaluate their nuclear programs - with neighboring Germany vowing to shut all its plants by 2022 - France has remained steadfast in its support for nuclear energy.

Authorities here downplayed the importance of Monday’s incident.

“It’s an industrial accident and not a nuclear accident,” Industry Minister Eric Besson said on I-Tele television. “There have been no radioactive leaks, and there have been no chemical leaks.”

Still, French environmentalists have long called for an end to the country’s nuclear program, and several ecology and leftist parties urged authorities here to rethink nuclear policy after Monday’s incident.

Sophia Majnoni, who runs Greenpeace’s nuclear campaign in France, noted that the plant was not part of a French safety audit conducted in the wake of the Fukushima accident.

“It is a nuclear plant yet its resistance to earthquake or flooding won’t be checked, which allows us to think that the government has not drawn all the lessons from the Fukushima catastrophe,” she said. “It is not only the nuclear power plants that are dangerous for the population.”

Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet visited Centraco - one of four industrial installations at the Marcoule nuclear site - later Monday.

The 740-acre Marcoule site also houses a research center and four industrial sites, including one that makes Mox, a fuel made from plutonium and uranium.

France’s EDF electric power company, whose subsidiary operates Centraco, said the furnace in Monday’s accident is used to melt slightly radioactive metal waste, including gates, pumps and tools into easy-to-store bars.

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