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The French Nuclear Industry Is Bad Enough in France; Let's Not Expand It to the U.S.

Areva, France's nuclear industry, has a solid reputation, but a trail of radioactive waste and deaths in Africa follow its wake.
 
 
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"Why can't the Americans be more like the French?" It's the prevailing pro-nuclear refrain, the latest in the nuclear industry's efforts at fictional reinvention.

And until the collapse of his ill-fated and poorly orchestrated presidential run, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was the choirmaster, saying: "If France can produce 80 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, why can't we?"

This clarion call to newfound Francophilia (remember "freedom fries?") is based on a number of false assumptions, the most obvious being that if France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear energy, this equates with success.

A poodlish U.S. press corps has largely lapped up the spoon-fed propaganda that everything nuclear French is magnifique, conveniently forgetting its post 9/11 self-flagellation after it meekly buckled to the Bush administration's misjudged bellicosity.

But France's monopolistic dependency on splitting the atom to turn on the lights has come with a huge price -- not only financially but in environmental and health costs. In reality, France is a radioactive mess, additionally burdened with an overwhelming amount of radioactive waste, much of which is simply dispersed into the surrounding environment.

The situation is complicated by the fact that Areva, the French nuclear corporation and biggest atomic operator in the world, is almost wholly owned by the French government. Consequently, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy has gone into high marketing gear -- the Washington Post anointed him "the world's most aggressive nuclear salesman" -- pushing nuclear power to any country willing to pay, most notably in the Middle East.

This proliferation-friendly profiteering, however, ignores an ugly situation at home and in other countries where Areva has left its radioactive footprint.

France has 210 abandoned uranium mines. The leftover radioactive dirt -- known as tailings -- along with radioactively contaminated rocks, have been used in school playgrounds and ski-resort parking lots. Efforts to force Areva to clean up its mess have been met with resistance from the company.

Historically, uranium mining corporations, including those in the U.S., have not been obliged to pay for cleanup. Many sites remain contaminated today, and disused uranium mine sites carry no warning signs. When a French documentary exposing the French uranium mining mess was scheduled to air on national television in February, Areva tried unsuccessfully to block it from the airwaves.

Areva CEO Anne Lauvergeon proclaims transparency as one of the hallmarks of her company. But its failed censorship attempt, coupled with the July 2008 cover-up when a major uranium spill at a nuclear processing plant went unreported to the public for 14 hours, belies that assertion.

Areva's subsidiary at Tricastin, the huge nuclear complex where the spill occurred -- contaminating two rivers, kept quiet about the accident and then denied the spill endangered human health. Nevertheless, drinking and bathing in the water was temporarily banned, and Tricastin wine growers have struggled to market their products since the accident.

Three more accidents in the region followed, prompting the French environment minister to order radioactive readings at all 58 operating French reactors.

The dirtiest French nuclear site -- with the cleanest of reputations -- is the vast reprocessing plant at La Hague on the Normandy coast. The nuclear industry has successfully cast reprocessing as "recycling," but nothing about reprocessing could be further from the collections of newspapers and soda cans that recycling conjures in the public's mind's eye.

La Hague takes in irradiated reactor fuel -- domestic and from other countries -- and, through a chemical process, separates the plutonium and uranium for theoretical reuse as new reactor fuel. The plutonium is mixed with uranium to make a fuel known as MOX.

However, fewer than 20 French reactors use MOX fuel, which in turn can handle only minimal proportions of plutonium, and the waste these reactors produce cannot be reprocessed. Since all reactors also produce plutonium during the fission process -- as much as 40 atomic bombs worth per year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council -- the net reduction of plutonium by MOX reactors is virtually zero and contributes nothing to the recycling of waste fuel.

Instead, 80 tons of surplus plutonium remain at La Hague in the equivalent of hundreds of soda-can-size containers. About 30 tons result from imported irradiated fuel from client countries, most of whom have now canceled their reprocessing contracts. This is despite a French law that mandates reprocessed waste fuel be returned to its country of origin.

Most of the uranium isn't "recycled" either. Ninety-five percent of the mass of spent French reactor fuel consists of uranium that is so contaminated with other fission products that it cannot be reused as reactor fuel at all (although France ships some of it to Russia). The vast majority of the uranium from reprocessing -- nonfissile uranium 238 -- cannot be recycled either and will need to be permanently secured.

Furthermore, reprocessing creates huge volumes of liquid radioactive waste and radioactive gases. These are simply dispersed into the sea and air.

As much as 100 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste a year is pumped from La Hague into the English Channel and has radioactively contaminated the seas as far as the Arctic Circle. These liquid wastes have been measured at 17 million times more radioactive than normal sea water according to an analysis by a French laboratory at the University of Breme.

In 1998, a Belgian laboratory at the University of Gent measured the aerial discharges from La Hague. The lab found they contained radioactive krypton-85 at 90,000 times higher values than natural levels. Krypton gas released from La Hague has been traced across the globe.

Illness clusters

Two independent medical studies have found high rates of leukemia in communities close to La Hague. Beaches, fishing and swimming areas have been closed due to concerns about radioactive contamination of the sea water. Exposure to radiation is generally considered one of the four most likely causes of leukemia (along with exposure to chemicals, viruses and genetics).

Far from recycling radioactive waste, the French face the same dilemma as everyone else: they don't know what to do with it. France has no scientifically accepted or operating high-level radioactive waste repository. The sole site identified to date -- at Bure close to the Champagne region in eastern France -- has been met with organized opposition and has encountered technical difficulties.

France has so much radioactive waste that the government recently approached 3,511 communities suggesting they become home to the so-called low-level radioactive wastes that have nowhere to go. ANDRA, the French national agency responsible for the disposal of nuclear waste, billed the dump project as a boon to local development but refused to publicly identify the handful of communities it says responded positively to the idea of hosting the country's nuclear detritus.

In fact, there is no French love affair with nuclear energy, but rather a deep mistrust of this most secretive of industries. Some of this suspicion dates to the Chernobyl accident in 1986, when a French government spokesman assured the population that the radioactive cloud from the Ukrainian reactor explosion (which eventually dispersed across the globe) had stopped at the French border. Unlike other Western European countries, France mandated no precautionary actions. Consequently, there are numerous hot spots, particularly in eastern France, where radioactive fallout was extremely high.

This deception spawned the formation of an investigative laboratory -- CRIIRAD or Commission for Independent Research and Information -- as well as a burgeoning network of close to 815 French anti-nuclear organizations.

In an annual fall poll, up to 60 percent of the French public consistently calls for a phase-out of nuclear energy. On March 17, 2007, 62,000 French citizens demonstrated across France against a proposed new reactor in Normandy. On the same day, a national anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C., turned out one-third that amount.

Areva's radioactive footprint also reaches beyond the borders of France. Nowhere is this more evident than in Niger and Gabon, where Areva, under its former incarnation, Cogema, and now under various subsidiaries, has mined uranium, the raw ingredient needed for reactor fuel (and for nuclear weapons) for more than 40 years.

The Gabon site is now closed, but joint investigations in Gabon and Niger by an organization of French lawyers -- SHERPA -- along with CRIIRAD -- found significant levels of radioactive contamination and serious health issues in both countries.

In Niger, ranked as one of the poorest countries on the planet and, like Gabon, a former French colony, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding that places Areva directly at the center, along with the Niger government, of what may yet flare into civil war.

After four decades of uranium mining by Areva subsidiaries in the poorer northern region of the country -- at Arlit and Akokan in the Sahara Desert -- the country faces an environmental catastrophe that is destroying the lives and livelihoods of the surrounding communities.

Radioactive dust is everywhere. Water sources -- already scarce in this desert region -- have been depleted and contaminated. Radioactive metals resulting from uranium processing, have been discarded as scrap or sold in the local markets and used by villagers in household items.

Areva, via its Niger subsidiaries SOMAIR and COMINAK, constructed two hospitals at Arlit and Akokan, which are only open to mine workers, and it supplies and pays the doctors who work there. The doctors publicly insist they have never seen uranium-mining-related illnesses caused by radiation exposure, a conclusion CRIIRAD and SHERPA strongly dispute based on the evidence they uncovered in their 2004-2005 investigations in Niger.

SHERPA subsequently found a company doctor who admitted that pulmonary and respiratory illnesses or cancers were never officially diagnosed, because this could harm the company's reputation. One anonymous source told SHERPA that patients with these diseases were told they suffered from malaria and AIDS. Patients who sought a second opinion at the public hospital at Agadez were met with incredulousness by doctors there, who could not understand how their illnesses could have been "missed."

SHERPA found one case of a mine worker with advanced leukemia who was refused health evacuation by SOMAIR and who died on the job at the age of 41 leaving behind five children.

Around Arlit and Akokan, CRIIRAD found unacceptably high levels of radioactivity -- particularly difficult-to-detect alpha emitters -- in the water, sand and in discarded metals. Water was found to be 10 times more radioactively contaminated than the World Health Organization's "acceptable" level for safe drinking water. Yet Areva's press materials state there is no contamination of drinking water at the two sites.

In 2007, CRIIRAD found radioactive rocks outside Areva's Akokan hospital that were 100 times more radioactive than background levels. A letter from CRIIRAD to Areva CEO Lauvergeon pointing out the problem went ignored. Areva eventually cleaned up the site.

Areva's uranium-mining monopoly in Niger ended in 2007 but existing contracts with the Niger government were renewed, and the company was recently awarded the contract for the huge new Imouraren uranium mine, the largest in Africa and due to open in 2012.

The Niger government, meanwhile, has declared open season on northern Niger, awarding close to 140 prospecting licenses to uranium-mining companies from China, India, Canada, the United States and elsewhere in its efforts to become the world's top exporter of uranium -- it currently ranks fifth.

Faced with large swathes of the country virtually cordoned off for new mines, some in Niger are fighting back, predominantly the Tuareg, the poorest and most deprived of Niger's northern population.

A largely nomadic people, the Tuareg have seen little of the benefits of uranium mining (they make up 3 percent of the workforce), and their traditional lifestyle has been the hardest hit. They view the government's new mining plans as a "pillaging" of the land, with the Tuareg sacrificed for corporate profit.

Some have taken up arms. Others, including exiled leaders in France, are leading advocacy efforts to draw international attention to the plight of their people. Growing desertification in the Sahara has been compounded by the dual effects of climate change and mineral extraction. The Tuareg are dependent on clean water for grazing their animals and growing crops and want to see no more uranium mining until the environmental devastation is cleaned up. They point out that none of the profits from current mining efforts has been injected back into their struggling communities.

The Niger government has responded by attempting to eliminate the Tuareg. Amnesty International has identified numerous human rights abuses, including disappearances, torture and summary executions. The Tuareg, fearing an attempted genocide, point to slaughter of their livestock by the Niger military in a further effort to eliminate their way of life. Some observers fear a smaller-scale Dafur in the making.

Areva has actively encouraged the Niger government to deal with the Tuareg problem, and late last year, an Areva vice president told a French government committee that the Tuareg were simply a romantic "illusion," urging his government to aid Niger in crushing them.

Niger is not without U.S. help as well. According to a March 2009 article published by In These Times, Congress authorized $500 million in 2005 for a six-year period to counter "terrorism" in the region, despite little evidence of Islamic extremism.

With its human rights track record largely a well-kept secret, Areva has been welcomed into the United States, where the company has quietly established 42 offices with 5,300 employees. Its U.S. tentacles extend to virtually every phase of the nuclear fuel chain, from uranium enrichment to radioactive-waste management. With the smoke and mirrors resurgence of nuclear power gaining political and public traction, Areva -- read the French government -- smells huge profits, and the U.S. is prime prey.

Areva is behind the push to revive nuclear-waste reprocessing in the U.S. The separated plutonium would then be blended into MOX fuel and used in U.S. reactors, none of which is adapted to handle the hotter plutonium fuel.

Until recently, Areva, in partnership with the U.S. Shaw Group, was running MOX fuel test assemblies at Duke Energy's Catawba nuclear plant in South Carolina before the operation was shut down prematurely for safety reasons. The U.S. MOX fuel was made at the French MOX fuel-fabrication plant at Cadarache, a facility that had been closed due to the danger of earthquakes in the area. The plant was reopened solely to accommodate the U.S. fuel, a move that was challenged as illegal by French anti-nuclear advocates.

Areva recently won a contract to build and operate a new uranium-enrichment facility in Idaho. It operates more than 50 percent of this country's dry cask storage operations, where all of the U.S. spent reactor fuel still sits at the 65 reactor sites (there are 104 operating reactors in the U.S.) At least 30 percent of U.S. reactors use Areva-supplied fuel.

The company's U.S. plans also extend to new reactors, where it hopes to grab at least 33 percent of the U.S. market according to its Web site. This includes a proposal for seven of its unproven "generation three" design, the Evolutionary Power Reactor, billed as the world's largest reactor. (It is called the European Pressurized Reactor everywhere but the U.S.)

Seven EPR reactors are slated for six U.S. sites, although so far only two sites -- at Calvert Cliffs on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Calloway near St. Louis -- have filed initial applications. George Vanderheyden, chief executive for UniStar, the company hoping to build the EPR at Calvert Cliffs, says the EPR "will be one of the most expensive technologies in the United States to build." UniStar has partnered with the French state electricity company, lectricit de France (EDF), on the project. However, cost may not be the only challenge.

The two Areva EPR reactors under way -- in Finland and France -- have already run into trouble. The Finnish reactor at the Olkiluoto nuclear site started first, in August 2005, but has already fallen three years behind schedule after safety and quality-assurance problems with the piping, containment liner and concrete base slab were discovered. This has put the Finnish EPR 50 percent over budget at a current estimated cost of at least $6.7 billion. Areva partner Siemens has pulled out of the project, leaving Areva to buy out Siemens' share at an estimated cost to the company of $2.6 billion.

When construction began in December 2007 on a second EPR at the Flamanville site in France on the Normandy coast, similar problems quickly arose. By the summer of 2008, the French security agency had shut down the construction site -- managed by EDF -- due to safety concerns about technical and quality-control problems with the reinforced steel used in the concrete base. EDF insists the Flamanville EPR will open on schedule in 2012 despite news reports that put the project nine months behind schedule after just nine months of construction. But in early March this year, EDF ran afoul of the European Commission, which raided the company's offices, suspecting EDF of antitrust violations and illegal price hikes.

EDF has come into the public spotlight before. In May 2006, a confidential security report prepared by EDF was leaked to French activists and the media. The document claimed to show that because the EPR could withstand the impact of a military jet it could also defend against a commercial jet airliner.

But when analyzed by John Large, an independent nuclear engineer in the U.K., these claims were deemed to be "entirely unjustified." Large said the documents showed the EPR had "an almost total lack of preparation to defend against the inevitability of a terrorist attack."

Congress and the White House have not yet been asked why they will allow U.S. tax dollars to flow to a French corporation for new nuclear projects on U.S. soil. Or why so many new nuclear installations are even needed when the cheaper, cleaner and safer alternatives of renewable energy are readily available. And especially why they will allow U.S. tax dollars to enrich a corporation with such an ugly track record on human rights.

Before another genocide in Africa is too late to stop, it is time those questions were asked.

Linda Gunter is the co-founder of Beyond Nuclear.
 
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