At the very tip of the Cotentin Peninsula, just 15 miles from the Channel Islands, lies Cap de La Hague, the site of France’s largest nuclear reprocessing plant . . .
Co-written with Nick Hildyard. Published in The Ecologist Vol. 8 No. 6, November – December 1978.
Identical in design to British Nuclear Fuel’s plant at Windscale, La Hague has had a dismal history of accidents, leaks and near-disasters since the day it was first commissioned in 1965. Local opposition to the plant continues to mount, but plans are already well advanced to extend the reprocessing facility and to build four nuclear power stations at nearby Flamanville.
La Hague was originally built to treat the spent fuel from the French-designed Natural Uranium Gas-Graphite (NUGG) reactors. In 1976, a High Activity Oxide (HAO) plant was added to take in fuel from the second generation of French reactors, the Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR). The trials for HAO, which lasted only six weeks before the plant was put into full production, were made with spent fuel from a Swiss Boiling Water Reactor which was less radioactive than fuel from the PWRs. The plutonium extracted through reprocessing is now being stockpiled for use in France’s Rhapsody, Phénix and Super-Phénix Fast Breeder Reactors.
Foreign Waste Floods In
COGEMA, the company that owns La Hague, is now busily expanding its facilities so that it can take in foreign spent fuel for reprocessing. The decision to go ahead with the scheme – which will involve La Hague trebling its capacity to reprocess 2400 tonnes of nuclear waste a year – was taken by the French Government in July last year. At first it is expected that 65 percent of the fuel reprocessed will be from Japan, although France has also signed massive contracts with Germany and Sweden to treat their nuclear waste.
Indeed, one of the chief outcomes of Prime Minister Barre’s recent trip to the Soviet Union was a study of possible reprocessing deals between the two countries. According to the French ecological magazine, Le Gueule Ouverte,
“To date foreign contracts commit COGEMA to reprocessing 3,000 tonnes of spent fuel from abroad by 1980. The Atomic Energy Commission. . . makes patriotic noises whilst increasing its profits by signing dishonest contracts which it cannot fulfil.”
Already there is a backlog of 1,000 tonnes of spent fuel from French reactors which must be reprocessed as soon as possible since the fuel rods are corroding and emitting fissile material through minute cracks.Back to top
Money Before Safety
The Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail (CFDT, the trade union representing workers at the plant) has strongly criticised COGEMA’s plans for expansion. In a submission to an inquiry into health and safety at La Hague, the CFDT argued that the plant had not yet been proved capable of treating oxide wastes on a commercial scale, and that no extension should be carried out until the process had been perfected.
They also charged that commercial considerations are being allowed to come before safety, and demanded not only that all foreign contracts be annulled but also that restrictions be imposed on the building of new reactors in France until the nuclear industry can demonstrate its capacity to treat the wastes. The CFDT’s report states that
“It is clear that the management of COGEMA has chosen to consider the reprocessing of spent fuel as a simple commercial operation whose success is obtained by obtaining juicy contracts. We are totally opposed to this conception.”
So lax is the management and so slipshod its approach to safety that incidents are now commonplace. “What used to be an exceptional procedure has now become routine”, say the CFDT. Their report goes on to catalogue the extent of the chaos at La Hague:
“Whatever their age, the buildings are designed to cope neither with normal tasks nor with ‘incidents’. Most of them are too small and the designers have never bothered to consult the workers who operate them – so the same mistakes have been made over and over again. Indeed building materials are often used which have already been proved inadequate.
“Originally the long-term storage of wastes was not even considered a possibility, so when the present backlog began to pile up we had to improvise by using the entrance halls of the buildings. One cooling pond is too small to contain the spent fuel rods from the PWRs so they are stored on the ground in vinyl wrappings. This same pool was so constructed that it is impossible to treat the water in it. The ventilation system in the High Activity Oxide plant doesn’t work if the doors are open.
“On top of the difficulties created by poor design there are the problems caused by the skinflint attitude of the management. To save money, all the walls and floors in the HAO plant are made of concrete which prolongs unnecessarily the process of decontamination. No lights have been installed in the high risk areas – so if the workers have to cope with an incident they have to bring in electric torches.
“Much of the protective cladding is made of lead plates which are cast in one piece so that the whole shield often has to be taken off to complete repair works. There doesn’t even exist a complete set of files or technical plans for the plant.”
To make its point, the CFDT gave a detailed run-down of the incidents that had occurred during a 4-week period, picked at random, in 1977. It reported that there had been: 42 accidents; nine complete stoppages of the HAO unit, lasting 11 days; five evacuations due to contamination; seven days lost through decontamination (during which ten incidents occurred); and only one day without any incidents at all.
Even when the management does lay down stricter safety regulations, they are subordinated to the needs of commercial production. So long as damage doesn’t slow down work at the plant, repairs are given no priority. In July 1976, for example, a leak was detected in part of the HAO plant. A valve was replaced but no other repair work was done because it was thought too difficult to see what was happening behind the protective cladding. Six months later, the leak reappeared but this time the order was given to continue maximum production. As La Gueule Ouverte reports,
“Everything was speeded up to the point where serious risks were taken in order not to close the plant. The size of the leak increased and subsequently it was found that 10 cc. of radioactive waste had filtered into the sewage system.”
It was yet another month before the plant was finally closed so that the pipe could be repaired. Even then work was resumed before tests could be made to check for radioactivity.Back to top
Over 500 workers contaminated
About the same time, eight workers inhaled plutonium dust and had to be placed under medical surveillance. Monitoring equipment showed that the concentration of plutonium in the filter system of the HAO plant was 30 times higher than the maximum permissible dose. In another area it was nearly 1,000 times too high. “Statistics prove that there are fewer accidents in a nuclear power station than in a factory manufacturing ready-to-wear clothes for women”, commented the managing director of La Hague.
Despite his assurances, it has been revealed that in 1975 alone there were 572 incidents of contamination to workers, of which 205 were internal contaminations. In 1973 there was a total of 280 reported cases. Perhaps it is also significant that deaths from cancer between 1973 and 1975 were 21 percent higher in the Canton of Beaumont (where La Hague is situated) than in the neighbouring Cantons of Cherbourg, Avranches, Coutances and Saint Lo.Back to top
Marine ecology at risk
If leaks have occurred inside the plant, they have been equally frequent outside. Radioactive wastes are released through a 20-metre pipe straight into the sea. So far the pipe has broken 30 times, eaten away by acids. On each occasion the wastes have filtered into the soil and contaminated groundwater reserves.
Once they reach the sea, the wastes tend to accumulate in the sediments of sheltered bays – not only in the immediate vicinity of La Hague but, because of the strong local currents, right the way round the North Coast. Recently Le Canarde Enchainé disclosed that a secret report by the French Atomic Energy Commission – the CEA – had revealed abnormally high levels of radioactivity in the sea up to 60 miles from La Hague. The report referred to “the apparently anarchic diversity of the distribution of radio-active wastes in the sea” and warned that the results of its research are a great lesson in prudence.
The area most contaminated to date appears to be Fermanville, some distance from the waste outlet pipe, where levels of Caesium 137 are four times higher than those in the sediment in bays around La Hague, whilst the levels of Cerium 144 are eight times higher (220,000 picocuries per kilogramme). The streams in the La Hague area are also contaminated: one, from which several herds of cattle drink, was found in 1976 to contain 3,800 picocuries per cubic metre of water. Levels of beta emitters in ray fish caught off La Hague were 5.9 pc/gramme and those off Guernsey were nearly as high, 4.2 pc/gramme.
What is particularly worrying is the sudden increase since 1973, of radioactivity levels in crabs and different types of seaweed. Levels remained very low for a long time, then suddenly escalated – very similar to what happened in the vegetation around Hanford. The only explanation would appear to be that the radionuclides in question have undergone a modification, possibly the result of some bacterial action, which has caused them to become very much more soluble in living tissues.Back to top
Accidents at sea
In the Channel Islands, only 15 miles from La Hague, there is growing concern over the rising radioactivity levels in the sea. Almost overnight, the Guernsey Nuclear Action Group (NAG) was able to collect 10,000 signatures – one quarter of the island’s population – to protest against the expansion of La Hague.
The islanders fear that the 40-fold increase in the amount of radioactivity the plant will have to handle by he 1980s will wreak untold havoc in the local marine life and kill their fishing industry. They also point to the considerable dangers of transporting nuclear waste through what is, after all, the busiest and most hazardous shipping lane in the Western world. Mr Justice Parker may have scoffed at the idea at the Windscale inquiry but what if the same fate were to befall a nuclear transport ship as befell the Amoco Cadiz? What would happen if canisters of waste fell into the sea and could not be retrieved?Back to top
Dissatisfied with the “less than comprehensive” sampling of radioactivity levels carried out by the British Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, NAG invited Dr. Hugh Livingston, from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Massachusetts, to sample seaweed, sand, shellfish, potatoes and soil from seaweed-fertilised fields, as well as the organs of seaweed-eating sheep. The first results for sediment and seaweed indicated a level of plutonium five times higher than expected levels, though lower than those around the Isle of Man.
NAG and its Jersey-based counterpart, CONCERN, also point to the dangers for marine life from the planned PWR reactors that Electricite de France (EDF) intend to build at Flamanville, a short distance down the coast from La Hague. If Flamanville goes ahead, its four reactors will need vast quantities of seawater for cooling. The water would be treated and then discharged into the sea.
Beside the possibility of adding yet more radioactivity to the sea, fears have been expressed about the effects of the heat of these emissions on marine life. It is estimated that some 300 cubic metres of water will be required per second to cool the reactors. Hot water discharged from the Spanish reactor at Vendella, a mere 500 MW plant, has already sterilised an area of eight kilometres around the outlet pipe – and that area is steadily expanding. At Flamanville, there will be four 1,300 MW reactors. According to M. Philiponeau, President of the Group de Brest de L’Institute de la Mer,
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“It seems clear that an ecosystem which is almost at breaking-point due to pollution, risks being destroyed by even a small rise in temperature.”
Although both NAG and CONCERN clearly have the support of the vast majority of the Islands’ population, neither the States (the Island Parliaments) nor the British Home Office, which represents them in foreign affairs, have shown any interest in the developments at La Hague or Flamanville. There has been no full debate in any of the Island parliaments on the issue, although one Guernsey member has tried unsuccessfully to introduce a private bill protesting against the developments.
Ironically, the islanders’ best hope for stopping the French plans may lie in an obscure document produced by Finance Commission of the French National Assembly. In a lengthy report it strongly criticises the rush to develop nuclear power in France, and the lack of public debate on the whole issue:
“Engineers are generally inept at public contact and are often shocked when their views are opposed. Indeed, opposition to their nuclear plans is the first time that this has happened to them. Normally everyone is contested in their professional lives – except scientists who rarely discuss matters amongst themselves. Yet now they are forming our future and our way of life. That one should not be permitted to examine their choices seems abnormal.”
The report goes on to highlight the escalating costs of nuclear power, and argues that this development alone is sufficient reason to reconsider France’s nuclear programme.
“The cost of a KWh, as calculated by the public authorities, has risen from 3.83 centimes in 1973 to 9.7 centimes at the beginning of 1977. All elements of the cost have increased strongly. The cost of investment has more than doubled: the running costs have practically tripled: and the same is true for fuel costs. . . of itself this development should persuade us to re-examine objectives which had been previously determined.”
The report ends by calling for the diversification of energy supplies, recommending an extra effort to save energy and reading the riot act to the nuclear industry for withholding accounts – an offence punishable under the French Finance Act. Whether the Commission’s findings will really influence the French government, committed as it is to a headlong dash to nuclear self-sufficiency, remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: a growing number of French officials are beginning to question their government’s policy. Ultimately that can only be good news for the people of the Cotentin Peninsula and the Channel Islands.Back to top
This report relies extensively on the following sources:
- La Hague – impact ecologique de l’usine de retraitment, Comité contre la pollution atomique dans la Hague.
- Nuclear Power – Cause for Concern in the channel islands, CONCERN (c/o Mrs. Joy Nursey, Les Talus, La Rigondaine, Grouville, Jersey).
- La Gueule Ouverte 1977 – 1978.