Blast At French Nuclear Waste Plant Leaves One Dead

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An explosion at a nuclear waste processing plant in France has left one person dead and four others injured — one seriously. The French nuclear authority says the blast was contained within a furnace, and there is no leak of radioactive material. The plant, which lies about 25 miles north of Avignon, is not involved in electricity production and has no nuclear reactors.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

There was a deadly explosion at a nuclear waste processing plant in France today. The blast killed one person and injured four others. But the French Nuclear Safety Authority says there was no release of radiation. Officials at the plant are calling it an industrial, not a nuclear accident.

As Eleanor Beardsley reports, whatever you call it, the incident alarmed many people in France.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: A furnace at the waste processing plant at the Marcoule Nuclear Site exploded at around 11:45 a.m. local time. The facility's emergency plan went into operation immediately. A siren warned people in the neighboring town, employees were not allowed to leave the site and officials began testing the area for radioactivity. But the accident was not inside a nuclear energy-producing plant, which would have been a lot more dangerous, says nuclear scientist Bernard Laponche.

Dr. BERNARD LAPONCHE: It's a factory in the south of France which is in charge of treating very low radioactive waste.

BEARDSLEY: That waste would have included metal or clothing from other nuclear sites, says LaPonche. Not long after the explosion, the French Nuclear Safety Authority declared the emergency over and the incident closed. But for a few hours, many people in France held their breath. Television channels headlined the story. News channel BFM asked the mayor of the neighboring village of Marcoule if there had been any contamination.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Well, they're telling us there isn't, he said, but we really don't have much information. But for now, our kids are at school and everything seems fine. Still, there were stories of people taking iodine tablets, which only protect you from a certain kind of radiation coming from nuclear reactors, not low-level nuclear waste. Nuclear authorities may have called the incident over, but some angry environmentalists were demanding more information. Scientist Laponche says it's not the end of the matter.

LAPONCHE: They will be obliged to give more information because there are too many questions. They don't give explanation on the reason of the explosion, what was inside the oven, and if they say that the explosion was limited to inside the oven, why one died and four others were injured.

BEARDSLEY: France gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power and is the most nuclear-dependent nation on Earth. It also earns billions of dollars exporting its nuclear know-how. The country has made nuclear energy a priority since the 1970s, and for decades, politicians of all stripes have supported it and the public rarely questioned the policy. But that began to change after the Japanese disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, says Yves Marignac, the head of a French energy information service.

YVES MARIGNAC: The atmosphere has changed everywhere in French society apart from the government and the industry. I mean, the nuclear lobby seems to act as if Fukushima was not a turning point.

BEARDSLEY: After the accident in Japan, French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered stress tests for all 58 French nuclear reactors. Those tests are still underway. But Sarkozy insists the French nuclear energy industry is the best in the world. Still, Marignac says more people in France are talking about phasing out nuclear energy, even if it remains national policy and not something the government will even consider. For NPR news, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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