Contamination fears after leak from French nuclear waste plant

Nuclear authorities in France were scrambling to calm fears yesterday following a radioactive leak from a nuclear waste processing facility near the town of Bollène, in the Rhône valley.

Officials immediately enforced an emergency contingency plan in three villages surrounding the plant. A ban was placed on drinking water from private wells, swimming in rivers and irrigating fields. Eating fish caught in rivers has also been outlawed.

Initial reports from Socatri, the company that operates the plant, said that 30 cubic metres of fluid containing 12g per litre of low-grade uranium were spilt at the Tricastin facility near Marseilles. Socatri later said that only six cubic metres, or 75kg, had actually escaped from the site, which decontaminates waste from a uranium enrichment centre.

The incident, which happened on Monday night, was the result of "a faulty container", according to initial reports from the Institute of Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety (IRSN). The liquid soaked into the ground and then passed into rainwater drains. The spill is 100 times the permitted annual quantity of radioactive effluent from the site.

Three rivers, including the Rhône, were contaminated. Experts said the risk to the public was low, despite indications that radioactivity levels were 1,000 times greater than World Health Organisation guidelines. "There is no immediate danger. But it will be important to monitor the water table," the IRSN said.

Anti-nuclear campaigners attacked the lack of transparency surrounding the spill as it emerged that Socatri took 12 hours to report it. "Elected politicians are dependent on information from people who are unelected and unaccountable, which is very worrying," said a spokesman from France Nature Environnement, the national federation of environmental organisations.

President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the construction of France's second European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR) less than a week ago. However, concerns over the fabrication standards at Flamanville, where the first EPR station is being built, have already been raised.