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Explosion rocks French nuclear site

Update 16:27 BST: SOCODEI says that the accident is now fully under control and that no radioactive material has been released (download statement).

An explosion has rocked a nuclear waste facility in Southern France, killing one and injuring four others. The blast occurred shortly before noon local time, and the ensuing fire was under control as of 13:06 CEST. No radioactivity has been released beyond the site, according to Sabine Mezard, a spokeswoman for EDF, which oversees the facility. The French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) is already investigating the accident.

The plant, known as CENTRACO, is administered by SOCODEI, a subsidiary of EDF that oversees waste treatment. According to the company’s website, CENTRACO melts down scrap metal and incinerates low-level waste for its parent company, which operates nuclear plants across France. The facility is located on the edge of a nuclear complex at Marcoule which also includes a Melox reprocessing facility for recycling spent fuel and several decommissioned reactors. There is no evidence that any of the other facilities have been threatened by the explosion and fire.

An undated academic review of the CENTRACO site says that the facility has been in operation since 1999. It melts down lightly-irradiated scrap metal and forges it into large canisters that can be used as radioactive waste containment vessels. It also incinerates low-level waste — filters, coveralls and other odds and ends — and then compresses the ash into metal drums for storage. The review indicates that the specific activity of the waste over a ten-year period is 200×109Becquerels. For comparison, that’s less than a millionth the radioactivity estimated to have been released by Fukushima, which stands at 770,000×1012Bq. Assuming this report is correct, the risk to the public is probably very low.

France depends on nuclear power for over three-quarters of its electricity, and it seems unlikely that the latest accident will cause the country to alter its course. Nevertheless, this fire is bound to cause a stir, especially coming just six months after the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan. The local paper Midi Libre is already reporting that several green groups are criticizing the response to the accident.

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