Nuclear Accident in France

A nuclear accident at the sprawling and historic Marcoule site, twelve miles north of scenic Avignon, France, killed one worker and injured four others, according to the French Nuclear Authority.

The workers were operating a high temperature industrial oven that burns low-level nuclear waste in a sealed building when the unit blew up. The worker who was killed was burned so badly his body was carbonized, according to officials. Another worker was seriously injured and three others received less serious injuries.

French authorities say no radiation was released outside the Marcoule site and all radiation is contained in the building. It should be noted that the French government and their government-controlled nuclear companies have a long history of poor transparency when it comes to reporting radiation-related accidents and leaks. Much of the French national economy is dependent on these companies providing electricity and exporting nuclear technology and fuel.

The explosion took place at the Centraco nuclear waste treatment facility run by EDF, the large French-government-owned nuclear utility through a subsidiary called Socodei.

The Marcoule facility has played a huge roll in the history of the French nuclear weapons program.

Since the mid-1990s, the Marcoule site has combined fissile uranium and plutonium into MOX fuel. EDF uses MOX in its civilian nuclear power stations. It sells nuclear fuel and technology worldwide through another French-government-owned company called Areva. EDF also produces weapons grade plutonium and tritium gas at the facility for the French government.

The  Marcoule site is to French nuclear weapons production what the Savannah River Site (SRS) in Aiken, South Carolina, is to the U.S. Department of Energy. Both SRS and Marcoule have deep connections to the French nuclear fuel and reactor company Areva. The U.S. government is investing more than $5 billion in a MOX fuel fabrication plant at SRS paying Areva to provide the technology and manage the construction. The American plant is behind schedule and over budget.

DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which runs the U.S. nuclear weapons program, touts MOX as the solution for arms control by claiming the new SRS MOX plant will be able to take old weapons grade plutonium from around the world and convert it into civilian reactor fuel to produce electricity. One State Department official told National Security News Service “that MOX is the United States’ answer to nonproliferation.” So far there are no paying customers for the reactor fuel. A less powerful version of that fuel that was loaded into Fukushima Reactor Number Three a year ago was dispersed into the Japanese environment after the March 2011 explosions and reactor meltdowns following the earthquake and tsunami.

The Marcoule site is involved in a massive and expensive radioactive clean up effort that so far, like the one at SRS, has been largely unsuccessful. Like the United States, the French have no final nuclear waste storage facility. Exacerbating the problem at Marcoule is the site also houses an experimental breeder reactor program that features a technology that produces more plutonium than it consumes.

Many critics say the French Nuclear Safety Authority, like the American and Japanese authorities, administers weak oversight of the French nuclear industry, which is in serious financial trouble.

EDF company share values are under pressure. In addition to the accident, the company has been criticized for the design of the European Pressurized Water Reactors (EPRs) that, according to government policy, are to provide next generation nuclear electricity. Some opponents call the reactor designs dangerous.

Last July, then French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde suggested the French government urge closer cooperation between utility EDF and reactor maker Areva to increase France’s chances of winning more reactor contracts abroad. “There must be a strategic partnership between Areva and EDF each time that it’s necessary for exports,” Lagarde told French radio station RTL. “Our two big nuclear champions must imperatively get along.”

Shortly after Legarde’s comments, French President Nicolas Sarkozy issued a statement that his government would look into the possibility of EDF buying a stake in Areva, a move opposed by then Areva Chief Executive Officer “Atomic Annie” Anne Lauvergeon.