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Explosion at nuclear waste facility in France results in death, injuries

by Amy Kenney,

PARIS – France's nuclear power industry was shaken earlier this month by an explosion at the Marcoule nuclear waste management facility in its southern Languedoc- Roussillon region. Officials reported there was no leakage of radioactive material, though the blast killed one person and seriously injured four others.

The country's Nuclear Safety Authority reported the explosion took place in an oven at the Marcoule plant, which is operated by Electricity of France (EDF), the world's largest utility company. The company called the event a "classic industrial accident," and said the oven, which was used to melt low levels of radioactive waste on pumps, tools and protective clothing, had not been working properly.

A fire that followed the blast was kept under control, EDF officials said. Although there is no nuclear reactor on the site, fears about radioactive leakage have prompted organizations suchastheInternationalAtomicEnergy Agency to investigate the issue. Medical examiners said the injured persons were not contaminated by radiation.

The event made headlines in France, which has the highest dependence on nuclear energy in the world. Nearly 80 percent of its electricity is provided through its 58 nuclear reactors, according to the U.S. Department of State website.

Despite the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in Japan, which has resulted in severe radiation leaks and the certainty of a pricey cleanup process, France announced this June it would invest one billion euros to further develop its nuclear program.

This move was not well received by many, especially as other European countries reevaluate their stance on nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said her country would shut down all of its nuclear power plants by 2022, and Switzerland and Italy have made similar statements.

"Nuclear (energy) must be considered an energy of transition, and not an energy of the future," said aspiring French presidential candidate Martine Aubry Sept. 12, just hours before the nuclear incident occurred.

But, such anti-nuclear power sentiment is not shared by all French citizens.

French resident Eva Totems, a professor of French language in Paris, said she is weary of nuclear power.

"I am against nuclear energy," Totems said. "My husband is from Germany, and you can see how they are more environmentally-minded than us there – look at their plans to abandon their nuclear program. It is not the same here in France. But, of course,
electricity is not as expensive in France as it is in Germany."

While popular opinion regarding the French nuclear program has traditionally been split, some say the public attitude has turned increasingly negative in recent months.

But in June, polling firm TNS Sofres found that 55 percent of French respondents were against abandoning the country's nuclear program, even though a majority agreed an accident like Fukushima was possible within French borders.

Totems' husband, Henri, pointed to the absence of an alternative to nuclear energy.

"There have not been problems in comparison to other countries, like with Chernobyl, like in Japan," he said. "Our nuclear facilities are well constructed and have good security. So, yes, many say we need to lessen our dependence on nuclear energy. The question is, what would we replace it with?"