Explosion at French nuclear reactor – experts respond

An explosion at a French nuclear reactor has killed one person and injured others, but experts say there is no need for concern regarding radiation leakage.

The explosion occurred at the Marcoule nuclear site, in a part of the facility used to melt down metals. No increases in radiation levels have been detected.

More information can be found reported here and in the original release from the facility (in French).

Our colleagues at the UK SMC collected the following comments from nuclear specialists:

Prof Andrew Sherry, Director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester, said:

“CEA have confirmed that the explosion took place in the Centraco plant towards the edge of the Marcoule site.  The explosion was associated with the furnace used to melt metallic low level and very low level waste; a large induction furnace operating up at 1600°C.  The resulting fire is now under control and measurements do not show any release of radioactivity outside the facility.”

Previous comments from Prof Sherry:

“The Marcoule nuclear site in the South of France is one of France’s oldest nuclear sites that played a key role in the development of the nuclear programme in the 1950s.  The site was part of the nuclear weapons programme generating plutonium.  The site played host to the Phoenix experimental fast reactor which permanently ceased operation in 2009.

“Today, the site is a major European centre for nuclear research and development, is engaged in programmes to clean up the nuclear waste legacy, and has a plant to manufacture MOX fuel. In particular, the site hosts:

  •  Atalanta (laboratory) : Laboratory processing of spent fuel and study on the management of high-level radioactive waste and long-lived
  • Melox : Plant MOX Fuel Fabrication
  • Centraco : Centre for treatment and conditioning of radioactive waste

“Centraco processes very low, low and intermediate level waste that comes from industry and research activities.  These can include metal objects (drums, metallic boxes, containers), waste clothing (gloves and laboratory overalls), and waste solutions (oils, solvents and resins).  The incinerator plant includes three chambers that operate up to 1200°C.

“Metallic waste is melted and cast into ingots.  Other waste is burned and the resulting ash and slag are immobilised and packed into metal drums before shipping to Centre de l’Aube storage, the low level waste site.

“It is too early to be certain about the location of the explosion, or of the radioactivity that may be released.  Should the explosion be associated with the Centraco plant, then it is likely that radiation levels will be low.”

Professor Malcolm Sperrin, Director of Medical Physics and Clinical Engineering at the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, said:

Initial Considerations prior to further confirmed detail.

“Any explosion, especially where fatalities occur, is rightly classed as a serious incident.  Industrial explosions are not uncommon but the public interest is clearly heightened where radioactive materials are located especially in the light of the Fukushima incident.

“There is currently very little available information on the state of the facilities at Marcoule but initial reports suggest an explosion in a part of the plant where waste is stored and such waste can be anything that leaves the confines of the reactor down to extremely low activity materials such as gloves.  It is also possible that the waste is not linked to the radioactive processes of the plant itself.

“Prudence leads to strident efforts to ensure containment and local procedures mean the area surrounding the plant may well be evacuated even where no leak is confirmed.

“The French Authorities are highly competent at disaster management and also in the implementation of safe practice in all industrial environments.

“It is unlikely that there will be significant (or any) releases of radiation into the wider environment but this will need to be confirmed in the next few hours or days.”

Dame Sue Ion, nuclear engineer and Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said:

“The facility is a major research site with many activities associated with decommissioning of France’s early nuclear facilities.

“The issue is NOT a reactor issue it is to do with decommissioning old waste facilities. The explosion occurred in a facility dedicated to the conditioning of low level waste of various origin before transfer to the ANDRA, The French National Low Level Waste repository.

“Whilst clearly a tragedy given the loss of life due to the explosion, it is not thought there will be major off site consequences or release of radioactivity.

“The site at Marcoule does other things like make MoX fuel but these are unaffected and nothing to do with the current problem.”