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Agence France Presse

French Nuclear Facility to Shut Down After Uranium Leak


LYON, France -- French authorities ordered Friday the temporary closure of a nuclear treatment plant in a popular tourist region of southern France after a uranium leak polluted the local water supply.0712 01 1 2

But site operator Socatri, a subsidiary of French nuclear giant Areva, said it would permanently shut down the facility at the Tricastin nuclear plant in Provence as part of a previously-planned upgrade.France's ASN nuclear safety authority cited a "series of faults and human negligence that is not acceptable" when it ordered the closure following an inspection at the plant on Thursday.

Residents in the Vaucluse region have been told not to drink water or eat fish from nearby rivers since the leak on Monday night, in which 75 kilogrammes (165 pounds) of untreated liquid uranium spilled into the ground.

Swimming and water sports were also forbidden as was irrigation of crops with the contaminated water.

ASN said it would recommend to local councils that the precautionary measures remain in place for at least a week.

Part of France's popular Provence summer tourist destination, the Vaucluse draws legions of holidaymakers to its picturesque towns.

One of France's 58 nuclear plants, Tricastin is located in Bollene, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from the city of Avignon, which is currently hosting a major theatre festival.

Socatri said it would shut down the facility -- one of two at the nuclear treatment plant -- in the coming weeks.

"We take note of the ASN's decision," said Socatri spokesman Hugues Blacher. "We will take steps to ensure that this type of incident does not happen again."

The ASN severely criticised Socatri's handling of the crisis, saying it had been too slow to inform authorities following the incident, local ASN head Charles-Antoine Louet told reporters.

A safety inspection carried out on Thursday found that "security steps aimed at preventing any further pollution were not completely satisfactory," according to an ASN statement.

The ASN also detected a series of "irregularities" at the site's operations at the time of the incident, and has ordered Socatri to implement "a reinforced surveillance plan including analysis of the surrounding rivers and ground water."

The ASN said its report would be handed to the state prosecutor for possible legal action against Socatri, which was singled out by the safety body in May over "repeated leaks" last year in the site's waste water evacuation system.

The leakage this week occurred when liquid was transferred from one container to another at the Tricastin site, which has a nuclear reactor as well as a radioactive treatment plant.

Socatri said Wednesday that tests carried out on the groundwater, three local wells and the rivers had shown "no abnormal elements" and French Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo insisted Thursday there was "no imminent danger" to the local population.

But the ASN this week found abnormal levels of radiation in several rivers and lakes in the region although these were found to be decreasing.

The incident at Tricastin ranked as a level-one incident on the seven-point scale to rank nuclear accidents.

French anti-nuclear group Sortir du nucleaire (End nuclear power) had accused Areva of withholding information about the spill and "deliberately putting the population at risk."

On Thursday, it said it would lodge a complaint against the ASN for failing to quickly notify the population of the incident.

The 75 kilogrammes of untreated uranium amounts to 6.26 cubic metres of liquid containing 12 grammes of uranium per litre, according to Socatri.

© 2008 Agence France Presse

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