Idahoans Should Take Note of Areva’s French Nuke Spill
Snake River Alliance News Release
July 11, 2008
For Immediate Release

Contact: Andrea Shipley
(208) 344-9161 (office)
(208 541-8713 (cell)
Email: [email protected]
The French-owned company that Idaho legislators and other officials lured to Idaho Falls with taxpayer-funded subsidies is battling public outrage at home over its handling of a uranium leak at one of its French nuclear plants. Areva, the nuclear giant courted by Idaho officials hoping it would bring its uranium enrichment plant to eastern Idaho, is under fire for the timing of its notification of a radioactive leak that prompted government-ordered bans on drinking tainted waters as well as swimming and fishing in them.

The event this week in southern France underscored concerns both about the French government’s oversight of its nuclear industry, but also of how the government-controlled Areva handled the public health threat from its power plant uranium leak, which wasn’t detected until eight hours after it occurred.

The effects of the spill of untreated liquid uranium from the Tricastin nuclear power plant in southern France are not believed to be significant and according to reports from France are diminishing by the day as radioactive levels in surrounding waters continued to decline due to dilution.

“Everyone is relieved that this radioactive release was not more serious than it could have been,” said Snake River Alliance Executive Director Andrea Shipley. “It nonetheless raises concerns about how the French government portrayed the spill and its impacts to local residents. And it certainly raises concerns about Areva’s performance during this incident, and why the leak was not detected until well after it occurred.”

Shipley also noted the irony of the accident occurring less than one week after Idaho Sen. Larry Craig was in France for a tour of Areva’s nuclear operations. “The purpose of our trip is to visit the plants of Areva, Idaho’s newest energy partner, and others to see firsthand the successful experience France is enjoying with clean nuclear energy,” Craig said.

“Accidents happen,” Shipley said, “but the consequences can be truly profound when they happen at a nuclear power complex. Furthermore, opposition to nuclear power continues to grow in France exactly because of incidents like this. France’s nuclear history is anything but clean, as it continues to pollute surrounding waters with radioactive wastes.”

According to the London-based newspaper The Guardian, the leak from the Areva plant occurred while a tank was being cleaned between Monday night and Tuesday morning local time, but it was not detected until Wednesday. About 30 cubic meters of non-enriched uranium poured onto the ground and into two nearby rivers that flow into the Rhone River. Authorities in Vaucluse banned drinking well water, fishing and eating fish from the rivers. They also prohibited swimming in or irrigating crops with the affected waters.

The Guardian quoted Germany’s Social Democrat environment minister, Michael Muller, as saying this week’s release shouldn’t be taken lightly. “It’s no trifle when active uranium penetrates the soil,” Muller told Agence France Presse. A similar report in Germany’s Spiegel Online’s English version summed things up this way: “In the ensuing uproar, the facts have been a bit slippery, too. French nuclear giant Areva, whose Socatri subsidiary operates the facility where the leak occurred, has lowered its estimate of the leaked solution to 18,000 liters (4,755 gallons) — down from the 30,000 liters (7,925 gallons) that they first suspected of losing. The company also announced late Wednesday that the leak took place late Monday night rather than early Tuesday morning. The incident sparked a national outrage in France and angered residents and environmental organizations, and distrust has grown after officials downplayed the seriousness of the event. The mishap also has the potential to make people and countries that are now re-embracing nuclear power have second thoughts. “

Idahoans know Areva best for its aggressive efforts earlier this year in the Idaho Legislature, which over the objections of the Alliance and Idahoans statewide passed two bills to attract the French company’s $2 billion uranium enrichment complex to a site just west of Idaho Falls.

Legislators and Gov. Butch Otter celebrated passage of tax freebies to grant Areva a $400 million cap on its Bonneville County property tax assessment (H562) and also a bill (H561) to exempt Areva’s equipment purchases from the state’s sales tax. The tax giveaways pushed Idaho over the top in a multistate sweepstakes to attract a uranium enrichment plant that will spew tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride waste that will remain at the plant site for at least a generation – until a U.S. plant is built to process that waste. The depleted uranium hexafluoride waste is radioactive and chemically toxic. When exposed to moisture, even damp air, it releases highly corrosive gas that damages kidneys and lungs and can kill those who inhale it. While some “deconversion” facilities to process that waste are under construction in the United States, they will need decades to process the mountain of existing depleted uranium hexafluoride, meaning Areva’s Idaho waste will stay in this state for decades.

As recently as May of this year, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it was looking into a violation by Areva regarding a shipment of equipment to the Watts Bar nuclear plant in Tennessee in February. A shipment of cleaning equipment to that plant for use by Areva’s Field Services Group was scanned for radiation and it was determined the shipment contained excessive radiation levels. The NRC this month decided not to fine Areva for the infraction, but instead warned similar violations would result in civil fines, and Areva was placed on higher enforcement status.

Shipley said Areva may be the world’s largest nuclear services company, but it’s no less bound to critical environmental and health laws than any other company hoping to do business in Idaho.

“Areva is proposing a plant that will leave Idaho with a mountain of radioactive waste for more than a generation,” Shipley said. “We’re not impressed with its political tactics in the Idaho Legislature, and we’re not impressed with its performance on the global scene, including in its home country of France. Given the company’s history of radioactive lapses, Idahoans should demand their government agencies impose the most stringent environmental safeguards on this company.”

The Snake River Alliance has a long history of advocating for the cleanup of the radioactive legacy from the Cold War at the Idaho National Laboratory and protecting the Snake River Aquifer that lies underneath the contamination. It also advocates clean energy alternatives to nuclear and fossil fuel power generation.