Heat Wave Threatens
French Nuclear Reactors

By Alex Duval Smith The Independent - UK

PARIS -- The French government is considering national electricity rationing after engineers warned that they can no longer guarantee the safety of the country's 58 nuclear power reactors because the heatwave is defeating efforts to cool them.
A crisis meeting this morning at the Prime Minister's office will be told that France - which depends more heavily on atomic energy than any other European country - faces the prospect of shutting down half its power grid.
ElÈctricitÈ de France (EdF) says the temperatures of reactor casings in some plants are approaching the 50C safety limit and attempts to cool them by spraying water from the outside have largely failed. Environment campaigners say the fragile ecosystems of rivers such as the Rhone and the Garonne - whose levels are already low - are threatened because nuclear plants are discharging cooling water at more than 30C, compared with the usual maximum of 24C.
Nicole Fontaine, an industry minister, said the poistion was serious. "Usually, when one country needs to reduce production, it can import power from a European neighbour, such as Britain, Germany or Switzerland," she said. "This is what has happened in the past. But production is low everywhere because the heatwave and drought is affecting everybody. We need to look for solutions at home and find a balance between consumption, production capacities and environmental constraints."
Environment campaigners say the present crisis proves the safety rules of the French nuclear industry do not allow for extreme situations and that the electricity and atomic energy authorities are acting with impunity. Stephane Lhomme, spokesman for the pressure group Sortir du Nucleaire (Get out of nuclear), said: "EdF is currently applying left, right and centre for dispensation from safety rules - and obtaining it. This proves that French environmental protection rules are seen by EdF to be only of use when everything is going well."
Since the end of July, the French nuclear safety authority has granted three plants exemptions from rules limiting the top temperature of cooling water discharged into rivers to 24C - Bugey on the Rhone, Tricastin on the Drome and Golfech on the Garonne. Each has been allowed, temporarily, to discharge water at 30C. This morning's ministerial meeting will be told that each is exceeding the new limit.
A further two plants have reduced their output and have applied to discharge water at more than 24C - Blayais on the Garonne near Bordeaux and Saint-Alban in the Alps. Le Monde reports that a plant at Cruas, south of Lyons, has been discharging water at 29.8C without permission.
Last week, amid much criticism, EdF sprayed Fessenheim nuclear power station, in Alsace, with water drawn from the water table below the power station but failed significantly to reduce the 48C temperature of the reactor casing.
M. Lhomme said: "This crisis comes as the government is preparing to announce the launch of a new generation of nuclear reactors. What we should be doing is cutting consumption and freeing up some money to invest in renewable energy sources, rather than deepening this country's dependence on nuclear energy."
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd



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