August 5, 1997: Earlier this year, an article in the British Medical Journal reported an abnormally high rate of childhood leukemia within a 35 km radius of the French nuclear fuels reprocessing plant at La Hague, Normandy. The French Health Ministry’s radiation protection office denied any possible connection between leukemia in children and radiation at La Hague, on the grounds that any radiation hazard would have been detected by the thousands of environmental measurements that have been made. Subsequently, however, the Commission of Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (CRIIRAD), a private agency, reported that, at low tide, tourists collecting seashells near a pipe carrying nuclear waste out to sea were exposed to 300 microsieverts per hour, which amounts in 4 hours to “more than the annual maximum dose.” In addition, CRIIRAD found abnormal concentrations of highly toxic iodine-129 in moss within a 7-km radius of the plant. Altogether, CRIIRAD claims, authorized outputs by the La Hague plant exceed the total discharge of all the world’s nuclear reactors combined.
Efforts by Greenpeace to monitor waste piped from the La Hague plant into the English Channel have been hampered by the state owned Compagnie Générale des Matière Nucleares (Cogéma) which used divers to “confiscate” Greenpeace’s underwater monitoring equipment. Greenpeace was, nevertheless, able to obtain samples which, according to analyses by an independent German Public Health laboratory, contained radioactivity 150 times in excess of the European Union’s limit of 100,000 becquerels of radioactive material per kilogram.
Responding to these developments, Dominique Voynet, France’s newly appointed Environment Minister, criticized Cogéma’s action in confiscating Greenpeace’s equipment, and ordered the government’s own radioactivity monitoring office to check effluent samples collected by Greenpeace. When results of the Government’s tests showed radioactivity even higher than reported by Greenpeace, the minister ordered closure of beaches adjacent to the waste pipe. She further ordered independent studies of the amounts of radioactivity being dumped by the La Hague plant and a public enquiry into permitted outputs of radioactivity. Bernard Koucher, France’s secretary of state for health, promised to set up a national cancer registry to determine whether people living near nuclear plants are prone to a higher incidence of the disease.
A more difficult task that remains for ministers is to decide the future of the La Hague plant, which is the largest employer in the region after the Cherbourg nuclear submarine plant. However, according to a report in the European, residents are now concerned about the health effects of the plant, and there has been a dramatic fall in tourism to the region. Moreover, the La Hague plant has outlived its original purpose of providing plutonium for fast breeder reactors, since in his first address to the National Assembly, Premier Lionel Jospin announced that the Superphénix, the world’s only commercial-scale fast breeder reactor, was to be shut down. A shut down of the La Hague plant may, therefore, soon follow.
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