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France sends mixed signals following fatal nuclear blast

There are no concerns about radioactive leaks as a result of the fatal explosion at a nuclear waste processing plant on 12 September and there are unlikely to be consequences for general safety standards for such plants, a senior nuclear safety official has told Research Europe Today.

Thierry Charles, safety director at France’s Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety Institute, said that the operating company “has taken contamination measurements in the building [where the blast occurred] and in the chimney, and no traces of contamination have been observed.”

However, Laurent Roy, the official in charge of the Marseilles region for the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), which will conduct the technical investigation into the accident, told Research Europe, “We don’t know the causes of the explosion.”

He said that the plant was for due a once-in-10-years safety review in 2012. It failed several routine inspections of its crisis management plan in 2008 and 2009 and corrective actions were requested as recently as June 2011.

“This plant has to comply with crash-test scenarios requested following the Fukushima disaster,” Roy said, but tests had to be carried out in order of priority—with nuclear power plants top of the list.

The furnace that caught fire after the explosion in the plant at Codolet, near Marcoule, is similar to those used in the steel industry, where explosions of this type have happened when water from the cooling system had come into contact with molten metal.

Nuclear plants were expected to provide an initial testing report by the end of September, but there was no such deadline for lower priority sites such as the Codolet plant.

The explosion left one dead and four injured, who are thought to have been burned by flying pieces of metal.

At the time of the blast the furnace contained four tons of metal that emitted about 63,000 becquerels of beta and gamma-emitting radionuclides.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the minister for ecology, sustainable development, transport and housing, immediately visited the site, which is operated by Socodei, a subsidiary of power utility company EFD.

If the judicial and technical investigations found that the plant had failed to fulfil safety requirements, ASN has the power to suspend its operating licence or impose jail terms.