French Nuclear Facility Must Close or Risk Earthquake

PARIS, France, July 21, 2000 (ENS) - A seismological survey produced by France's nuclear safety institute six years ago but made public only this week has intensified pressure on the nuclear firm Cogema to shut its mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility at Cadarache, southern France.


The entrance to Cogema's MOX fuel fabrication plant at Cadarache. (Photo courtesy Commissariat l'Énergie Atomique)
The Institut de Protection et de Surete Nucleaire (IPSN) provides technical backup to France's nuclear safety authorities. Its 1994 seismic survey shows that Cadarache's immediate surroundings experience significant earthquakes about once every hundred years.

The last quake happened in 1913 and measured eight on the European Macroseismic Scale. On the one to 12 scale, eight is classed as "heavily damaging," causing cracks in walls and partial collapse of some buildings.

The 1994 IPSN study, obtained and publicized by the Paris branch of the World Information Service on Energy (WISE), warned seismic activity on the three fault lines that surround Cadarache is on the increase.

"The seismic activity shows a significant recrudescence since the end of December 1993," said the study, indicating that earthquake activity is occuring again after a period of inactivity.

In 1995, fearing the facility was not built to withstand a major earthquake, the French nuclear safety authority, Direction de la Sûreté des Installations Nucléaires, (DSIN) asked the government owned Cogema to present a plan that would shut down the Cadarache plant shortly after 2000.

After waiting two years without an answer, the DSIN repeated its request in 1997. Cogema responded by suggesting it could build a giant containment covering the existing installations. The DSIN refused the offer. reprocessing plant

Cogema's reprocessing plant in La Hague. (Photo courtesy Cogema)

Built by the government's Commissariat l'Énergie Atomique (CEA) in 1961 as a laboratory for the study of plutonium bearing fuels, Cadarache is vital to Cogema. The plant takes plutonium separated from spent nuclear fuel rods at Cogema's main reprocessing plant at La Hague in northern France and converts it into mixed plutonium uranium oxide (MOX) fuel.

Cadarache produces 40 tons of MOX fuel per year exclusively for Germany's nuclear industry and is integral to Germany's plutonium management strategy. It services about two thirds of Germany's nuclear reactors. However, the German government and the country's electricity utilities recently agreed to phase out nuclear power over the next 30 years.

Cogema wrote to the DSIN saying it would close the Cadarache plant if it could use the Melox plant in Marcoule, also in southern France. The Melox plant currently fabricates MOX fuel for French and Japanese customers and is legally bound not to extend existing capacity. press

A MOX pellet press at the Melox facility in Marcoule. (Photo courtesy Cogema)

The DSIN is sticking to its shutdown request. This week, head of DSIN André-Claude Lacoste told reporters the situation was unacceptable.

Mycle Schneider of WISE-Paris called for action. "The fact that this has been going on for five years without the industrial side of the nuclear industry having come up with a clear answer to the requests of the official safety authority, means that the French goverment has to step in and seize control," he told reporters.