WORLD

A nuclear cover-up? the fallout spreads

Hushed-up details of a French nuclear mishap emerge

February 16 1981
WORLD

A nuclear cover-up? the fallout spreads

Hushed-up details of a French nuclear mishap emerge

February 16 1981

A nuclear cover-up? the fallout spreads

Hushed-up details of a French nuclear mishap emerge

WORLD

The nuclear power controversy was back in the headlines last week as 12,000 demonstrators went on the rampage in Hamburg, West Germany's second-largest city, injuring 10 policemen. They won only a limited victory. While the protest persuaded the city's governing Social Democrats to opt out of their part in its building, work on a 1,300-megawatt nuclear plant at Brokdorf, 45 km away, resumed Friday after a four-year moratorium—on the federal government's orders. West Germany, however, is not the only European country where antinuclear feeling is running high. Across the border in France, which has the West's biggest nuclear power program, several recent incidents have combined to increase anxiety. Marci McDonald reports:

Aside from having once been immortalized by a little bit of movie musical puffery called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in which Catherine Deneuve was seen as the world’s most elegantly dressed gas station attendant, the inhabitants of Normandy’s stark Cotentin Peninsula have little to be thankful for. Vicious currents make the austere headland jutting out into the English Channel a sailor’s nightmare. Even the normally indulgent Michelin Guide warns hapless motorists away from its bleak coasts. For the

past month, however, the local population has been anguishing over whether the government shouldn’t have issued a warning of another sort.

At the heart of the bitter debate is a vast radioactive cloud that may have dumped lethal pollution over the landscape after a fire in the storage silo of the world’s only commercial nuclear reprocessing plant at nearby Cap de la Hague early in January. As evidence mounts of the ineptitude and secrecy by which France’s atomic energy authorities have tried to hush up the affair, the enraged residents of Cotentin villages and Cherbourg on Feb. 1 wound up a tumultuous weekend forum on whether or not they had been contaminated.

Despite the calming assurances of nuclear safety officials, the debate—organized by the plant’s unions—could hardly have been expected to allay their fears. France’s nuclear program has also been characterized by high-handed silence and what at times has appeared a cavalier regard for safety. Certainly, as the facts gradually filtered to light, an increasing number of Cotentin’s natives wondered aloud whether the 1,600 jobs provided at La Hague were worth the price of living alongside what one ecologist, Didier Anger, referred to as “the biggest atomic garbage dump in the world.”

The centrepiece of France’s ambitious $10-billion-a-year race to generate 55 per cent of its electric power from atomic energy by 1985, the La Hague plant is the only facility in the world now recycling spent nuclear fuel rods to extract plutonium. Other nations have attempted reprocessing, notably the United States and West Germany, but in both cases the technology proved so tricky and accident-prone that France is now alone in turning a profit by transforming the used uranium shipped to Cap de la Hague from countries as far away as Sweden and Japan.

Not that La Hague hasn’t had its own woes. Dubbed by the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur the “Achilles heel” of the projected French nuclear program, it has never functioned at more than 25per-cent capacity. In the past year alone, there have been seven “incidents” on the site including leaks from pipes carrying waste water into the sea that caused a disquieting jump in the level of radioactivity in the adjacent Bay of Moulinets.

Last month’s fire was the most serious, however, and, thanks to bureaucratic bungling, the most alarming development to date. The cause of the combustion wasn’t located until nearly six hours after plant controls first showed an abnormal rise in radioactivity during the night shift. Next morning, when alarms went off, the

staff was ordered to put on masks and evacuate the site. That order was then countermanded because the contamination was judged worse outside. When the fire was finally traced, firemen hosed it down with water, instead of liquid nitrogen, creating a huge radioactive cloud over the area.

By mid-afternoon, when the consulting safety engineer and management were Telexing Paris for instructions, most employees remained blissfully unaware of the mishap. When they punched off their shift at 4.30 p.m., they emerged into a seasonal downpour which, union critics charge, had washed the deadly particles onto their cars and, thanks to an unusual northeast wind, blown the cloud south over the placid pastoral landscape. But what angered the union most was that workers weren’t informed of the risk of contamination until next day, and management at first ignored demands for medical tests.

Director Maurice Delange issued a communiqué saying that the problem was “completely in hand and no contamination crossed the centre’s perimeter fence.” But his words seemed less weighty when security teams started hosing down cars that had been driven into town the night before, confiscating clothes and, in some cases, sending workers home to fetch their previous

day’s attire and bed sheets. Decontamination teams visited the homes of at least 10 employees, even happening upon a radioactive pet tabby.

As staff fury built into a 1,000-man demonstration outside administration offices, anxiety spread along the coast. Within the week, 3,000 citizens stormed through the streets of Cherbourg in protest. The Council for Information on Nuclear Energy, headed by former health minister Simone Veil, opined at month’s end that the public had a right to rapid and complete information on all nuclear incidents. But that ruling was hardly a consolation to Cherbourg.

Coming as it did shortly after news that the director of security for all France’s nuclear installations, Jean Servant, had resigned over lack of cooperation and the downright antagonism of other government ministries in charge of the atomic program, the fire raised an ominous cloud of anxiety over the peninsula of Cotentin. The umbrellas of Cherbourg are being raised these days not in song against the weather, but in very real fear of what the enigmatic cumuli overhead might be raining down.