Franco-German atom transport policies diverge

Shipments of spent nuclear fuel to re-start in France while German contamination row deepens

Shipments of irradiated nuclear fuel rods from French power stations to La Hague reprocessing plant on the Normandy coast are to re-start, the French nuclear installations safety agency (DSIN) has announced. The move opens a startling gap between policies in France and neighbouring Germany, which both halted nuclear fuel movements in May after spots of radioactivity were reported on fuel shipment containers and rail wagons (ENDS Daily 7 May), (ENDS Daily 25 May).

The DSIN said yesterday that the decision to authorise new transports followed a report from French state electricity firm EDF on measures to ensure stricter controls on irradiated fuel shipments leaving power stations. Transports will be allowed to re-start site-by-site after checks at each one by national nuclear safety and radiation protection authorities.

The situation in France now contrasts sharply with that in Germany, where an expanding row has already embarrassed the nuclear industry, electricity producers, fuel transporters and state and federal authorities. All fuel transports remain on hold, and campaigners are capitalising on the scandal to renew their call for nuclear power to be phased out.

Germany has 19 nuclear power stations, which produce about 30% of its electricity. While nuclear transports are halted, power firms are storing irradiated fuel rods on-site in cooling ponds. Plants will begin to exhaust their storage capacity from next spring, according to Greenpeace Germany, and might then have to scale down or even halt production.

Meanwhile, almost every institution involved in nuclear transports or its regulation is facing severe criticism. Federal environment minister Angela Merkel remains under pressure over her claim that she knew nothing about the radioactive contamination before being informed by the French authorities in late April (ENDS Daily 29 May).

At meetings with Ms Merkel and before the German parliament's environment committee, electricity and nuclear firms have admitted that they knew of instances of contamination and have admitted that their information policy was defective. One firm conceded that the affair had thrown the country's nuclear power industry into crisis.

Nor have state authorities escaped the soul searching. The nuclear safety authorities in Hesse admitted last week that they had been informed of contamination above regulatory limits as early as 1990, though the state environment minister claimed to have learned of the situation only recently. A report published in Bavaria has shown that over one-third of shipments were contaminated during the 1980s, leading to calls for the state environment minister to resign.

The turmoil in Germany is also threatening to take on a European dimension. MEPs in the European Parliament have condemned the attitude of companies involved in nuclear transports in Germany and France and have called on the European Commission to launch an environmental assessment of EU transports of nuclear material. Meanwhile, the opposition Liberal Democrat party in the UK has pointed to contamination on similar nuclear rail containers and has called for an official inquiry.

Follow Up:
DSIN, tel: +33 1 43 19 36 36; German environment ministry, tel: +49 228 3050.

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