Greenpeace Activists Break Into French Nuclear Reactor

Greenpeace Activists Break Into French Nuclear Reactor
French gendarmes block the access at the French nuclear plant on December 5, 2011 in Nogent-sur-Seine after Greenpeace activists managed to sneak into the plant. Photographer: Francois Nascimbeni/AFP/Getty Images

Greenpeace activists broke into a nuclear reactor southeast of Paris to highlight what the environmental group said was a lack of security at France’s atomic plants.

“This is proof security measures are totally ineffective,” Greenpeace said today in a statement after nine members gained access to Electricite de France SA’s Nogent-sur-Seine plant.

EDF, the operator of France’s 58 reactors, said the intruders entered the site before dawn after cutting through a fence that runs around the perimeter.

“There will be lessons learned,” Dominique Miniere, EDF’s head of French nuclear reactors, told a press conference in Paris where the company is based. “We are in the process of improving the detection and protection systems at our sites. We’ll see if we have to go further.”

Greenpeace and EDF have been in conflict for years over France’s power production, more than three-quarters of which is nuclear. Atomic safety has received more scrutiny in the aftermath of Japan’s Fukushima atomic disaster, with opposition parties in France calling for some reactors to be shut down.

“I am surprised because our plants are well-guarded,” French Industry Minister Eric Besson said in an interview on France Info radio in response to the break-in. “This would mean that there was a malfunctioning and we would have to take measures so this doesn’t happen again.”

‘Highly Protected’

The industry and interior ministries will carry out an “in-depth investigation,” Besson’s office said later.

None of the campaigners breached a “highly protected zone” where the nuclear, fuel and control installations are located, although they did get through the first two lines of defense, according to Miniere.

France’s nuclear regulator is carrying out safety checks on EDF’s reactors as well as other atomic installations in France to determine whether they are safe to operate following the meltdown at the Japanese reactor. The audits are examining whether the sites are able to withstand earthquakes, floods and loss of power and cooling systems.

Their scope should be widened to test for other types of risks to nuclear plants such as terrorist attacks, plane crashes and computer bugs, Greenpeace said today.

Two Hours

Seven of the protesters were caught within two hours of breaking into the plant just after 6 a.m. local time, while the remaining two eluded capture for another two hours, according to EDF.

“We sought to apprehend them in a peaceful way after realizing they were Greenpeace militants,” Miniere said. “If they were terrorists, we would have stopped them in a very different way.”

EDF pays heavily-armed French police to protect its 19 nuclear plants including Nogent, he said. Greenpeace militants have breached nuclear installations at least five times in recent years, sometimes staying as long as a day to deploy banners on coolant towers.

They were caught “much faster this time than in the past,” said Miniere. Detection systems and cameras kept tabs on the “highly-trained” intruders that French police had trouble chasing because they were weighed down with heavy equipment including arms, he said.

Greenpeace banners put up at EDF nuclear sites at Chinon and Blayais were pulled down, the company said.

“It’s irresponsible to take risks with their lives and the lives of others,” President Nicolas Sarkozy said.

Today’s intrusion at the Nogent-sur-Seine site follows surprise safety inspections Nov. 30 by the atomic regulator and lawmakers at the Blayais and Paluel reactor plants.

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