MaltaToday | 16 July 2008 | French nuclear accident raises questions about Libya accord

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NEWS | Wednesday, 16 July 2008

French nuclear accident raises questions about Libya accord

Raphael Vassallo

An accident in a nuclear reactor in the south of France last week has re-opened the debate on the safety or otherwise of nuclear energy plants, such as the one the French government has signed a memorandum of understanding to build and operate on the coast of Libya.
Last week’s accident – which was curiously under-reported in the European media, during the same week when France assumed the presidency of the European Union – took place between Monday 7 and Tuesday 8 July at the Tricastin plant in Bollene, 40km from Avignon, in the heart of the Côte du Rhone wine-producing region.
After a plant malfunction, some 30,000 litres of a solution containing 12% enriched uranium overflowed from a reservoir into the nearby Gaffiere and Lauzon rivers.
A spokesperson for France’s nuclear safety agency, Evangelia Petit, admitted that the concentration of uranium in the two rivers was 1,000 times higher than normal after the spill. Enriched uranium is highly carcinogenic and a potential source of radiation poisoning, but Petit downplayed the consequences of last week’s leak, claiming that the risk posed to humans was “slight”.
Nonetheless, inhabitants of nearby towns and villages have been banned from fishing, swimming, drawing well water or using water from the polluted rivers for irrigation purposes.
The area is known for its agricultural produce, including the Grenache, Syrah and Carignan grapes used in reds, and Clairette, Ugni Blanc and Grenache Blanc for whites.
France produces 80% of its energy from such nuclear reactors in various parts of the country.

Libya deal questioned
Commenting on the Tricastin accident in his blog, the Green Party’s spokesman on sustainable development Carmel Cacopardo raised questions about the safety of nuclear energy, in the light of an agreement between France and Libya to build a nuclear-powered desalination plant on the coast of Libya, possibly within 300km from Malta.
Cacopardo told MaltaToday that a similar accident so close to home could have serious repercussions on the health and safety of the Maltese population, possibly also compromising the country’s economy.
“An accident along the Libyan coast in a newly constructed nuclear plant could possibly (depending on its scale) contaminate the Mediterranean sea, and as a result it would affect us in a number of ways: contaminating seawater which is the source of around 40% of Malta’s drinking water; additionally destroying what’s left of the fishing industry; and depending on the timing of such an accident, it could also deal a severe blow to Malta’s tourism.”
Cacopardo pointed out that the Green Party had immediately objected to the French/Libya agreement as soon as the deal was announced almost exactly a year ago.
“AD as far back as July 2007 had stated that it disagreed with the agreement between France and Libya providing for the use of nuclear energy to produce potable water through desalination,” he said. “The risks inherent in the use of nuclear energy through human error, equipment failure and natural causes are enormous, as is evident by the ever-rising number of accidents. The French accident of last week is just the last example.”
The government of Malta has so far been reluctant to comment on the situation, and now that France has assumed the presidency of the European Union, and has placed immigration – an issue of direct concern to Malta – at the top the EU’s agenda, it seems that Malta is unlikely to rock Sarkozy’s Mediterranean yacht.
In the light of the Tricastin accident, this newspaper asked Foreign Minister Tonio Borg whether the government had been given any form of reassurance by France that the nuclear-powered desalination plant it intends to build on the Libyan coast would not pose a threat to the health of safety of the Maltese population. No replies were forthcoming at the time of going to press.
MaltaToday similarly sought such reassurances from French Prime Minister Francois Fillon during his official visit to Malta in May. However, on that occasion the Department of Information limited questions only to PBS and The Times, with other media such as, RTK and MaltaToday denied the opportunity quiz the French PM.
Questions sent this week to the French embassy similarly remained unanswered.

Nukes for nurses?
The memorandum of understanding between France and Libya was signed by French president Nicolas Sarkozy during his visit to Tripoli in July 2007: the day after Libya finally released five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor, who had been sentenced to death on charges of having deliberately infected over 400 babies with the HIV virus in a Benghazi hospital in 1998.
Speaking to Al Jazeera soon after their release, Seif Al Islam Ghaddafi – son of the Libyan leader Muammar Al Ghaddafi – candidly admitted that the nurses and doctor had been tortured into confessing their guilt.
French anti-nuclear group ‘Sortir du Nucleaire’ was quick to accuse Sarkozy of handing over nuclear technology to Libya in exchange for the nurses. The deal was also described as irresponsible, as it could enable Libya to develop weapons of mass destruction.
“Civilian and military nuclear are inseparable,” the group said. “Delivering ‘civilian’ nuclear energy to Libya would amount to helping the country, sooner or later, to acquire nuclear weapons.”
France, however, has always denied any connection with the release of the Bulgarian nurses, and insists that the technology will be used for peaceful purposes only. Sarkozy has this year also signed similar nuclear cooperation agreements with Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.

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