‘Game of drones’ highlights France’s nuclear vulnerability

[Jane drumsara/Flickr]

Nuclear power station at Belleville-sur-Loire, a site of drone flyovers. [Jane drumsara/Flickr]

Unidentified drones have made flights over 11 French nuclear power stations since the beginning of October. French authorities and nuclear experts are becoming increasingly worried about this activity, which Libération has dubbed the “game of drones”. EURACTIV France reports

Energy company EDF has complained to France’s Atomic Energy Commission, and an investigation is being opened into the subject. It is forbidden to fly within 5 kilometers of a nuclear power station, or less than 1,000 meters above one. Contravening this law can earn you a year in prison, and a fine of €75,000.

“These are very serious events! I do not understand why they are not taken more seriously. One issue is the unknown origin of these drones, but there is also the potential danger demonstrated by this kind of occurrence,” said Mycle Schneider, a French nuclear expert and author of the World Nuclear Industry Status Report.

“All the state services for the safety and security of the most important sectors (interior, energy and environment, defence) have been mobilised since the beginning of these flyovers, in an attempt to identify those responsible and to put an end to them,” the French Secretariat General for Defence and National Security stated in a press release.

Security questions

The French government has refused to admit that the security of the power stations could be inadequate.

Ségolène Royale, the Minister for the Environment, said in an interview with Europe 1 that she “will not […] allow the credibility and the reputation for safety standards in [France’s] nuclear power stations to be jeopardised”.

Greenpeace expressed concern on Saturday that drones could be used to drop explosives on nuclear power stations.

France is the world’s most nuclear-reliant country, with 58 nuclear reactors spread over 19 power stations, but unlike those under construction in Normandy and Finland, its current nuclear facilities have no protection against attacks from the air. The pools in which spent fuel is stored are not equipped with solid roofs, a situation the Nuclear Safety Authority has already asked EDF to rectify.

A reconnaissance operation?

“The heart of a nuclear reactor is installed inside a very solid enclosure. But a clever person would look for a power station’s weakest points, and with reconnaissance operations, they might find what they are looking for. Of course there are fragile and attackable areas,” Mycle Schneider said, citing the vulnerability of the facility at La Hague.

He believes this is one of the most vulnerable sites, presenting a high risk of radioactive contamination. 10,000 tons of irradiated material is stored in 5 relatively unprotected pools, raised above ground to avoid damage from seismic activity. “The problem with above-ground pools is that they can be drained, and they are only covered by corrugated metal,” he said.

The anti-nuclear lobby has long opposed the intrinsically dangerous practice of transporting plutonium by lorry on public roads, which the specialist says exposes the material to attack from terrorists. The vulnerability of La Hague is all the more concerning because of the large volume of radioactive material that is processed and stored there, originating from France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and Japan.

A spokesperson for Areva, the company that operates the site at La Hague, said that transporting plutonium to and from the power station was inherent to the process of waste recycling, but that the material was moved in special containers and did “not represent a radiological threat to populations or the environment”.

French Green party MEP Michèle Rivasi said “we have to identify who is behind these flyovers. It is hard to believe that that is beyond the capabilities of the authorities, unless the flyovers are organised by the intelligence services in order to test the response. If this is the case, they should say so; the French people cannot be left in the dark”.

“We have to take the necessary safety precautions: accelerate the implementation of post-Fukushima safety standards, and even exceed them. Ecologists across Europe had drawn the European Commission’s attention to the partial consideration of security risks, and had asked them to take air crashes into account. They had also insisted that spent fuel pools, where waste from reactors is stored for at least 3 years, and which represent a significant radioactive threat, be “bunkerised” (protected with concrete slabs). The real tragedy of nuclear safety is that it is concentrated only on the “reactor building” and not on other areas of the power station that represent a real danger”. 

After the Fukushima disaster, the EU carried out "stress tests" in Europe, testing the safety of the continent's nuclear reactors. 

Security problems were analysed by an ad-hoc group (AHGNS), which made recommendations for improvements. The question of potential aerial attacks was raised in this report

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