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France

Greenpeace stunt at French nuclear plant revives debate

Text by Ben MCPARTLAND

Latest update : 2011-12-07

The future of nuclear power in France is back in the spotlight after Greenpeace activists broke into a power plant on Monday in a bid to highlight the lack of security. The issue is set to play a key role in next year’s presidential election.

The future of nuclear power in France is back in the spotlight after Greenpeace activists broke into a power plant on Monday in a move designed to highlight the lack of security at nuclear plants.

The stunt has reignited a row over nuclear power that is set to play a pivotal role in next year’s presidential election.

In the early hours of the morning, nine activists from the environmental campaign group Greenpeace broke into Nogent-Sur-Seine power station, 60 miles south of Paris, scaled a building housing a nuclear reactor and unfurled a banner which declared “safe nuclear power does not exist”.

In one swift move, they claimed to have proved the “vulnerability” of French nuclear sites.

Later on Monday, Greenpeace revealed to FRANCE 24 that there were several other activists still holed up in another unnamed power station, waiting to see how long it would take security guards to track them down. Two were reportedly arrested late in the evening.

These actions clearly took the French authorities by surprise and were described as “rather irresponsible” by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

As next year’s presidential and national assembly elections loom large, Greenpeace’s stunt has reignited the row over the future of nuclear power among the country’s political parties.

“Nuclear power is not safe”

Despite providing timely ammunition to the anti-nuclear lobby, Greenpeace insisted its actions were not aimed at influencing voters’ minds ahead of the presidential elections next spring, but solely to send a message to the nuclear industry in France.

“Energy will be a big part of the debate in the run-up to the elections. We are politically independent so we are not backing one side or the other, we are just saying that nuclear power is not safe. Today was just to demonstrate that there is no such thing as safe nuclear power”, Isabelle Philippe, communication officer for Greenpeace, told FRANCE 24.

No other global power depends on nuclear power for electricity like France, whose engineers are now considered leaders in the field. But after the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima power plant last March, France has been engaged in a fierce debate over how safe it is to rely so much on atomic energy.

The Socialist Party and its presidential hopeful Francois Hollande want to see a reduction in France’s dependency on nuclear power, which currently produces around 75 per cent of the country’s electricity. Their stance, which could bring them support from the country’s influential Green vote, has been slammed by President Sarkozy, who believes his rival’s policy would be folly and that it would destroy the nuclear industry in France and its 100,000 strong workforce.

Politicians began trading blows in the aftermath of the break-in and social networking site Twitter provided the battlefield.

Industry Minister Eric Besson told French radio station FranceInfo that there must have been a “dysfunction” with security at the site and that “appropriate measures needed to be taken”.

Almost immediately, Cecile Duflot, national secretary of France’s Green group - Europe Ecologie Les Verts (EELV) took to Twitter to ridicule the minister. “If their intentions had not been pacifist, then we would be calling it a ‘catastrophe’,” she said. Besson hit back tweeting: “Subtle as always. Clearly they were closely watched throughout the whole incident. Would you have preferred a shoot-on-sight policy?”

Noël Mamère, EELV deputy, praised Greenpeace’s stunt, insisting that it proved “there was not total security around France’s nuclear plants”.

“No security system can be 100 per cent full proof”

Safety checks are currently being carried out inside France’s nuclear installations in light of the disaster at the Fukushima power plant. But those tests focus more on safety rather than on security – something which Greenpeace insists needs to be addressed.

Greenpeace’s operation on December 5 comes just two months after an explosion at a nuclear waste treatment site not far from Avignon, which left one man dead and four injured. Only last month anti-nuclear protesters clashed with police in Normandy when they tried to stop a train carrying radioactive waste to its final destination in Germany.

Dr Matthew Moran, who specialises in nuclear issues as a research associate at Kings College London, told FRANCE 24 he is not surprised by the heated debate on nuclear power in France.

“There was always going to be political manoeuvring around the issue. It’s right back in the spotlight around the world but the difference in France is that nuclear power is embedded in French society and culture. I don’t think it will be the big issue of the election but it will be up there and that in itself is important as it hasn’t been there for a long time.”

His colleague Dr Christopher Hobbs, who specializes in nuclear security, told FRANCE 24: “While no security system can be 100 per cent fool proof, it is clear that, following this incident, EDF will need to look at the security systems that they have in place at the reactor.

But according to Hobbs, this doesn’t mean France will turn its back on nuclear power.

“However, it is a big issue on the political agenda so these incidents certainly do not help and it will give ammunition to anti-nuclear energy group, those like Greenpeace” he added.

French interior minister Claude Guéant scheduled an emergency meeting before the end of the week to review the security breach.

Date created : 2011-12-05

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