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Are French power stations safe?

1,000 security alerts in 2010, says report

THERE were more than 1,000 security alerts at French nuclear power stations last year, according to a leaked report.

Radio station Europe 1, which says it has seen a report by the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), claims incidents have doubled in the past 10 years.

President Sarkozy has pledged to close any nuclear reactor that fails tests to be set by a European body, which wants to review all 143 reactors in 14 member states, following the accident at Fukushima in Japan. France has 58 reactors in 19 power stations, producing 76 per cent of the country’s power.

The French incidents are said to have reached a maximum of no more than two on an international seven-point scale (the damage to Japan’s Fukushima plant after the recent earthquake was graded six; Chernobyl, seven).

According to Europe 1, level two means "serious failings in the security systems" and can relate to "serious contamination".

Sortir du Nucléaire, a network of parties and associations opposed to nuclear power, such as Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, has been calling for France to ditch nuclear power. Mr Sarkozy says there is "no question" of this.

In discussion with other UMP chiefs, he reportedly said: "If we have lost markets and invitations to tender, it is because we are the most expensive and, if we are the most expensive, it is because we are the safest."

He added "third-generation" French power stations, such as the one being built at Flamanville in the Manche, were so safe that a Boeing 747 could crash into one without damaging the reactor.

However, Cécile Duflot, leader of Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, pointing to Japan, said: "When there is a major natural disaster, all the so-called safety measures fail in the country with the greatest technical know-how. Nuclear risk cannot really be controlled."

Green campaigner Nicolas Hulot has said there should be a referendum; the Socialists, who were in power when France increased its use of nuclear energy, have called for a "very precise audit" of the French power stations.

However, according to Energy Minister Eric Besson, a referendum would be premature. He said that "we must keep stressing to our citizens that all the French power stations were designed with risks like earthquakes and floods in mind".

The president of the ASN, André-Claude Lacoste, said it carries out 1,000 inspections of nuclear power stations a year, including up to 20 a year at France’s oldest one in Fessenheim, Alsace. The latter is causing particular concern among green campaigners, as Alsace is rated as being a "moderate earthquake-risk zone".

"There is no reason to close any reactors in France," said Mr Lacoste. "I believe that our reactors are sound. If we thought they were dangerous, we would close them," he added.

France has never had a major nuclear incident, although the plant at Blayais, Aquitaine, narrowly escaped catastrophe after it was flooded by a storm in 1999. Three of its four reactors had to be shut down and its cooling system nearly failed.

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