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Originally published Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Nuclear accidents in France raise concern

First, an overflowing tub at a French nuclear plant spilled uranium into the groundwater. Then a burst pipe leaked uranium at another nuclear...

The Associated Press

PARIS — First, an overflowing tub at a French nuclear plant spilled uranium into the groundwater. Then a burst pipe leaked uranium at another nuclear site, raising an alert on Friday.

The two accidents within two weeks, both at sites run by French nuclear giant Areva, have raised questions about safety and control measures in one of the world's most nuclear-dependent nations, and given fodder to anti-nuclear activists.

Environmentalists said the incidents are a wake-up call, raising doubts about an industry in which France has staked out a leading role internationally.

The accidents were bad public relations just as French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been pushing for even heavier investment in the nuclear industry, given spiraling fossil fuel prices.

Sarkozy announced this month that France will build a second new-generation nuclear reactor, or European Pressurized Reactor. Meanwhile, the U.S., the European Union, China, India, Russia, Japan and South Korea are working to create an experimental fusion reactor in southern France, which is aimed at revolutionizing global energy use for future generations.

France has 59 reactors churning out nearly 80 percent of its electricity, and the French state owns Areva, which exports its nuclear technologies around the world.

French Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo insisted that the incidents were minor, but he nonetheless ordered an overhaul of the country's nuclear supervision and information processes, as well as checks of the groundwater around all nuclear plants in France.

On Friday, nuclear-safety officials announced the discovery of a burst underground pipe at a plant in Romans-sur-Isere, southeastern France, run by an Areva subsidiary

Inspectors found that the pipe had been broken for several years and didn't meet safety standards.

Jean-Pierre Gros, Areva's head of combustion, said between 120 and 750 grams of uranium had leaked.

Areva insisted the leak of lightly enriched uranium did not spill beyond the plant, and that it had no impact on the environment.

But the incident was nonetheless another blow for Areva after a leak at the Tricastin site, near the historic southeast city of Avignon. A liquid containing traces of unenriched uranium leaked from a factory run by Areva subsidiary Socatri, spilling from a reservoir that overflowed.

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It leaked both into the ground and into two rivers, the Gaffiere and the Lauzon, the nuclear-safety agency said.

The incident prompted authorities to ban the consumption of well water and the watering of crops from two polluted rivers, as well as fishing, swimming and water sports. Local authorities said the leak happened during the washing of a tank.

Areva insisted the Tricastin problem "did not affect either the health of employees and local populations, or their environment." Still, it cost the plant director his job.

France's Nuclear Safety Authority classified the Tricastin accident as a 1 on a scale of 0 to 7. Areva suggested the second incident should be labeled a level 1 accident as well.

Borloo, putting the problems in context, said there were 86 level-1 incidents in France in 2007, and 114 in 2006.

Anti-nuclear campaigners, however, said the incidents demonstrate nuclear power's inherent dangers.

"[These] aren't isolated incidents — it's a global problem," Greenpeace anti-nuclear campaigner Frederic Marillier said of the accidents. "It clearly illustrates the industry's faults — nuclear is not a 'clean energy' as people sometimes call it."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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