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Biggest Atomic Breach Raises Alarm as French Debate Reactors

Just after 6 a.m. on Dec. 5, under cover of darkness, nine Greenpeace activists cut through a fence at the Nogent-sur-Seine atomic plant 95 kilometers (59 miles) southeast of Paris and headed for a domed reactor building.

They scaled the roof and unfurled a “Safe Nuclear Doesn’t Exist” banner before attracting the attention of security guards. Two remained at large for four hours. On the same day, two more campaigners breached the perimeter of the Cruas-Meysse plant on the Rhone, escaping detection for more than 14 hours while posting videos of their sit-in on the Internet.

The security lapses, described as irresponsible acts by President Nicolas Sarkozy, come at a time when debate has intensified on France’s reliance on atomic power for three-quarters of its energy needs in the run-up to next year’s presidential elections. They also pre-empt next month’s release of the results of safety checks at France’s 58 reactors, commissioned in the aftermath of the Fukushima tragedy.

“There needs to be a review of the entire security system,” said French lawmaker Claude Birraux, president of the parliamentary science committee whose remit includes the nuclear industry. “There are crazies in this world and that is what I find the most worrying.”

Greenpeace said its activists exposed the biggest security lapse to date at the reactors that are operated by Electricite de France SA, since it was the first time the environmental group was able to target more than one site at the same time.

‘Total Panic’

“EDF was in total panic,” said Yannick Rousselet, head of the French nuclear campaign at Greenpeace, who provided an account of the events, mostly confirmed by EDF. “They couldn’t deal with the situation.”

Greenpeace says its activists remained inside the Cruas site for 14 hours before being caught, though EDF has been unable to verify this.

“The actions by Greenpeace were irresponsible and put in danger people and sites,” French Industry Minister Eric Besson told parliament last week.

The government pledged to step up security after the intrusions, and measures such as installing electric fences and changing the policy on when force can be authorized are being considered, according to an official in Besson’s office familiar with the talks. EDF spokeswoman Jill Coulombez declined to comment on possible security changes.

EDF shares have slumped 37 percent since the Fukushima disaster, on concern about the amount of investment needed to keep French reactors running safely in the coming years. EDF fell 1.6 percent to 18.355 euros at 1:11 p.m. in Paris today.

Election Pledge

The state-controlled utility has already said that the annual bill for maintaining its reactors could more than double by 2015 as it seeks to prolong their lives. At the same time, the opposition Socialist and Green parties are campaigning to close 24 reactors by 2025 to cut dependence on atomic power.

France’s nuclear watchdog is due to publish in January the results of safety checks to establish whether the country’s nuclear plants are safe to continue following the meltdown at the Japanese reactor in March. The audits are examining whether the sites are able to withstand earthquakes, floods and the loss of power and cooling systems.

Their scope should be widened to test for their ability to withstand other emergency situations such as terrorist attacks, plane crashes and computer bugs, according to Greenpeace.

The intruders at Nogent-sur-Seine, who included a grandfather, were able to get to the roof of the reactor building from the fence in just 15 minutes, according to Rousselet.

Slack Security

With just half a dozen security guards protecting large nuclear installations at any one time, they wouldn’t have been able to catch “bad” people any more than the Greenpeace protesters, he said.

Andre-Claude Lacoste, head of the regulator known as the Autorite de Surete Nucleaire, argued earlier this year that such scenarios were outside his remit to examine the plants’ operational capabilities.

Even on this front, EDF came under criticism this month when Birraux accompanied the watchdog on overnight spot reactor inspections.

At the Paluel plant on the Channel, regulators tested the ability of EDF personnel to reconnect power at a reactor after a failure.

The exercise uncovered faulty equipment, erroneous instructions on how to carry out the procedure and a missing key to gain access to crucial controls, according to a letter from the regulator to EDF.

‘Not Good Enough’

“EDF has to do better,” Birraux said. “Employees were woken up in the middle of the night and managed to figure out how to get around all the obstacles to complete the test, but that’s not good enough.”

Still, EDF has sought to deflect criticism of its security procedures, saying the Greenpeace activists didn’t penetrate the “highly protected” zones at the reactors where atomic energy is produced.

The French utility has insisted that the protesters at Nogent-sur-Seine were immediately identified and in some cases found hiding like “rabbits in a forest.”

“When someone enters your garden, what do you do, do you shoot at them?” EDF’s Chief Executive Officer Henri Proglio asked reporters. “We will reinforce security measures that will make this type of action much more difficult to carry out and likely more painful.”

The Cruas break-in proved more embarrassing for EDF as the activists remained hidden near the perimeter fence even as the company was telling reporters that detection equipment showed no other intruders were at any of its plants.

“People got into reactor sites, highlighting a real nuclear safety issue,” said Chicuong Dang, an analyst at Richelieu Finance in Paris. “Legitimate questions are now being asked.”

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