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MINING LANDS COGEMA IN CRIMINAL COURT

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
#614
30/07/2004
Article

(July 30, 2004) The extraction of uranium began in France at the beginning of the 1950's. Approximately 200 mines have been operated in 25 departments; the last closed in May 2001. For many years, minimal protection was required in terms of radiological impact, water treatment, waste transport and management. The main French operator, COGEMA explained to the local population that uranium was "a natural substance" and therefore "was not a hazardous one". Furthermore, the official statement was that the uranium mining industry was extracting the radioactive metal from the soil, therefore leaving a less radioactive environment.

(614.5633) CRIIRAD - From 1992 to 1994, the CRIIRAD laboratory demonstrated the radioactive contamination of the environment near COGEMA uranium mines in Limousin and Loire Atlantique Prefectures.

In the Limousin area the CEA (Atomic Energy Commission), then COGEMA, operated more than 40 uranium mines and 2 uranium mills.

In 1992, CRIIRAD laboratory demonstrated that the radioactive tailings from COGEMA uranium mill were falling from COGEMA trucks, onto a public road, contaminating the property of an inhabitant of Bessines-sur-Gartempe, the city where the main mill was located.

In 1993, the Local Authorities (Conseil Régional du Limousin and Conseil Général de la Haute Vienne) commissioned the CRIIRAD laboratory for a preliminary study of the radioecological impact of uranium mines. At this time, the mines were being closed. This study, published in 1994*, proved that COGEMA monitoring protocols completely failed to properly evaluate the actual contamination of soils, rivers, and the open air by uranium and uranium decay products (radium 226, radon 222 and lead 210) scattered by the mine's operation.

CRIIRAD's laboratory demonstrated that:

 

  • the activity of radon in the open air, in the public domain, near COGEMA main site was very high (up to 30 times above background level),
  • the ambient gamma dose rate in the public domain near uranium mines was very high due to the dispersal of radioactive rocks and radioactive deposits on river and stream banks,
  • some of the radioactive tailings from the mill were dumped into an old open pit and the finest part of this radioactive mud (total activity above 1 million Bq/kg) was migrating towards underground galleries. COGEMA operation generated 20 million tons of tailings in this area,
  • radioactive rocks up to 20 times more radioactive than local granite were used as backfill and hard core material in many areas,
  • the radiological monitoring of waters was inadequate (no measurements of dissolved radon, lead and polonium 210, whose radiotoxicity is higher than plutonium one),
  • river sediments and aquatic plants, downstream uranium mines were seriously contaminated, with activities exceeding the limits for low level radioactive waste (radium 226 activities up to 25 000 Bq/kg).
  • the activity of radioactive effluents regularly exceeded legal limits but the administration in charge of controls (DRIRE) apparently failed to ask COGEMA to improve water treatment before discharges.

     

    Taking into consideration all these results, CRIIRAD asked for an improvement in French regulation, drastic changes in water treatment processes, waste management, radiological monitoring protocols and rehabilitation criteria.

    The CRIIRAD study had been managed as an inter-comparison. Each sampled collected by CRIIRAD scientists was shared with COGEMA laboratory in order to compare results. In 1997, a few years after CRIIRAD had published its report, the local administration (Prefecture and DRIRE) published a note where they falsely stated that CRIIRAD and COGEMA results were comparable and showed no radiological problems linked with mining operations.

    Later, in 1998, CRIIRAD laboratory and another laboratory of the University of Limoges demonstrated that the sediments of the Saint-Pardoux Lake were also contaminated by uranium and uranium decay products downstream COGEMA uranium mines. This lake was used as a leisure place for tourists.

    All these studies enabled a local NGO "Streams and Rivers of Limousin" - whose goal is to protect the aquatic environment - to lodge a complaint in March 1999. The examining judge finally decided to prosecute COGEMA in August 2002, but, in May 2003, the public prosecutor required the withdrawal of the case. In 18 August 2003, the examining judge confirmed his decision to send COGEMA to criminal court. An appeal was lodged by the public prosecutor on the same day but eventually, the Limoges Court of Appeal decided to send COGEMA to criminal court on 25 March 2004. COGEMA is accused of "pollution, abandonment and dumping of waste containing radioactive substances". This decision represents a first in France. COGEMA has decided to lodge an appeal of this decision.

    The decision of the judges is argued in a 20-page document. The following points were emphasised:

  • The local administration (DRIRE) did not properly fulfil its mission of controls,
  • COGEMA did not managed radioactive waste in accordance with the regulations,
  • COGEMA used rudimentary techniques to prevent the dispersal of radioactive substances in the environment,
  • COGEMA is unfair as it initially argued that the contamination of the aquatic environment had a "natural' origin and was not linked to its activities,
  • COGEMA 's offences are deliberate as it knew about numerous scientific reports that demonstrated the environmental pollution and did nothing to improve the situation,
  • COGEMA is a world-wide industrial Company whose communication is almost solely based on arguments of environmental protection,
  • These offences enabled COGEMA to lower operating costs. The environmental cost of these former activities should not be borne by the Limousin area 's inhabitants, knowing that COGEMA made substantial profits in the area of uranium mining.

     

    The judges' decision is a real first as CRIIRAD and other NGOs in the area of environmental protection have been fighting for more than 10 years to demonstrate the shortcomings of the French administration and French regulation in the field of uranium mining impact. It should be stressed that the French State is, since the beginning, totally involved in the nuclear industry's growth.

    The various independent monitoring campaigns conducted by the CRIIRAD laboratory around former uranium mines in the prefectures of Limousin and Loire-Atlantique and the departments of Hérault, Loire, and Cantal show that the local populations are still exposed to non-negligible radiation doses. In many cases, doses are above international and national standards. This situation will last for centuries if nothing is done to properly decontaminate these sites.

    * Summary and additional information can be found (in French) at www.criirad.org.

    Source and contact: Bruno CHAREYRON, nuclear engineer, CRIIRAD laboratory Manager, 471 av. Victor Hugo, 2600 Valence, France
    Tel: +33 4 75 41 82 50
    Fax: +33 4 75 81 26 48
    Email: [email protected]

    "For a Brighter Future - Strategies for a World without Nuclear Madness"

    FOLLOW-UP SYMPOSIUM

    The Lie of the Peaceful Use of Atomic Energy
    Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power Plants - Two Sides of the Same Coin
    Date: 1-2 October 2004
    Venue: Ursulinenhof, Landstraße 31, A-4020 Linz, Austria

    The mining of uranium begins the long chain of violence and destruction. Civil rights are violated, indigenous peoples uprooted. "Side products" from the manufacture of nuclear fuel, such as depleted uranium 238, are reused as uranium ammunition, which was used in both Gulf Wars and in the Balkans, leaving death and misery in its wake and whole swathes of land radioactively contaminated.

    Nuclear materials are transported without any information given to the public and are even, as is the case in France, classified as military secrets. Reprocessing the nuclear fuel, so destructive to the environment, provides the plutonium for atomic bombs. Under the guise of pursuing a "nuclear programme", countries the world over are trying to get their hands on nuclear capabilities - and Europe is following suit. The Euratom Treaty (as one of the three founding treaties of the European Communities) has opened that door.

    With this symposium, it is our intention to shine some light on the hidden connections between nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants and to develop joint strategies for creating a world without nuclear madness - for a brighter future without nuclear power plants and without nuclear weapons.

    Programme includes:
    Working groups on:
    Nuclear programmes as a pretext for worldwide nuclear armament
    How to use a nuclear power station to build a dirty bomb
    European Union-Russia - nuclear (power) trade
    Exit scenarios - worldwide antinuclear campaigns
    Networking strategies - networking: effective and fast!
    The military rearmament of Europe thanks to Euratom

    Speakers:
    Alexey V. Yablokov (Russia) on "Nuclear Twins: Inseparable Connections between Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power" (with simultaneous interpretation), followed by plenary discussion.

    Gerald Oberansmayr (Austria) on: Auf dem Weg zur Europäischen Atombombe? Atomwaffen und die Militarisierung der Europäischen Union. (Heading toward a European nuclear bomb? Nuclear weapons and the militarisation of the European Union)

    Sebastian Pflugbeil (Germany) on: Die nebelige deutsche Position zu Atomwaffen (Germany's vague position on nuclear weapons)

    Contact organisers for registration and additional information
    OÖ Plattform gegen Atomgefahr, Landstr. 31, 4020 Linz, Austria
    Tel: +43 732 774275
    Email: [email protected]