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Mudding the Waters: Cogema's Hidden Environmental Crimes


French nuclear giant COGEMA (La Companie Generale des Matieres Nucleaires, General Company for Nuclear Materials) leads the international consortium that was awarded the U.S. Department of Energy’s $130 million contract to manufacture MOX fuel at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

COGEMA has tentacles encircling the globe, with nearly 20,000 personnel, operations in 30 countries, and contracts with scores of nuclear utilities. COGEMA is a world leader in all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. It is in the top two uranium mining firms, producing 6,500 tons of uranium concentrates per year, nearly 20% of world production, from such sites as Saskatchewan and West Africa, and is eyeing prospective new mines in the Grand Canyon (Havasupai Indian Reservation) and Australia.

COGEMA’s uranium conversion plant is number one in the world, with a 14,000-ton annual capacity. Its enrichment facility is number two in the Western world. COGEMA owns and operates 3 nuclear fuel fabrication plants in Europe and one more in the U.S. Together, these account for one-third of all pressurized water reactor uranium fuel produced in the world. COGEMA also generated 132 tons of MOX fuel for PWR’s and boiling water reactors in 1998 alone, as well as fuel for fast breeder reactors.

COGEMA is also very active in high-level waste transportation, shipping waste by train and truck from across Europe, and by boat 20,000 miles across the oceans to Japan. In 1998 alone, COGEMA’s revenues topped $4.6 billion. Operations outside of France account for 40% of its sales. Its international activities are expanding: its new MOX contract in the U.S.; a license for its subsidiary Transnuclear West’s NUHOMS-MP187, the U.S. NRC’s first for a high-level waste transport cask; a $200 million contract to mine and process 30,000 tons of uranium in Canada.

COGEMA’s main claim to fame (or infamy) is reprocessing. Reprocessing accounts for 50% of sales. It is number one worldwide, reprocessing more than 1,600 tons of highly irradiated nuclear fuel rods annually. Altogether, COGEMA has reprocessed well over 10,000 tons of high level waste from France, Germany, Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland since the early 1980’s. But COGEMA’s fortunes made from reprocessing have come at a huge cost to the environment and human health not just in France, but worldwide.

Through its 3.5 mile long discharge pipe, COGEMA’s La Hague reprocessing facility on the Normandy coast of the English Channel has dumped nearly 60,000,000 gallons of liquid reprocessing wastes directly into the Atlantic each and every year since the early 1980’s. Some contamination settles in the marine environment off the French coast--dangerous traces retained in crabs, clams, fish and seaweed. The rest spreads northward along the North Sea coast of Europe and further into Scandinavian and even Arctic waters.

In the summer of 1997, Greenpeace divers discovered that COGEMA had turned the seabed at the mouth of the discharge pipe into the equivalent of an underwater nuclear waste dump. Independent analysis revealed that the sediments contained such high levels of radioactive americium, antimony, barium, cesium, chromium, europium and manganese that, under UK regulations, should be handled as intermediate level nuclear wastes. The liquid discharge from the pipe was found to have an overall beta particle activity of up to 216 million becquerels (Bq) per liter, 17 million times more radioactive than normal sea water’s 12 Bq per liter. Low tides regularly uncover sections of the discharge pipe on a public beach where people are allowed to stroll, swim, fish, and boat. Greenpeace measured hazardous levels of radiation emanating from the pipe itself, nearly 4,000 times normal background levels.

COGEMA, without so much as an environmental impact study, scraped off the radioactive crud that had built up within the pipeline, and "accidentally" dumped over 1,000 pounds of it into the sea. COGEMA concealed this accident, not only from the public but also from the French nuclear authorities, until the very day Greenpeace returned to send divers back down to the pipe mouth. After allowing the dumped wastes to wash away with the ocean’s currents for a year, COGEMA announced in the summer of 1998 that it would "clean up" its earlier spill by dredging up the ocean floor at the end of its discharge pipe, again without first conducting an environmental impact study on the danger of re-suspending hundreds of pounds of highly radioactive wastes that had settled onto the bottom.

The announcement came on the day that Greenpeace renewed radiological monitoring offshore, and appeared to be an attempt by COGEMA to "prepare the ground" for filing a request for a new permit to discharge an additional 500 million gallons of nuclear waste into the sea in the course of the next decade.

COGEMA’s La Hague site is also one of the world’s worst radioactive air polluters. In the autumn of 1998, Greenpeace returned, this time to monitor the radioactive gases spewing from La Hague’s two tall chimneys. Despite an estimate that the reprocessing plants at La Hague and BNFL’s Sellafield release up to 90% of the world’s artificial aerial radioactivity, public access to monitoring records is non-existent. Greenpeace’s air samples, collected at an altitude of 180-360 feet and up to half a mile from the plant's main discharge stacks, were analyzed by the University of Gent, Belgium. The radioactive noble gas krypton-85 was found at levels up to 90,000 Bq per cubic meter, as compared to the world average radioactivity in air of between 1-2 Bq per cubic meter. Computer dispersion models show how the discharged radioactivity spreads over large parts of Europe, covering France, UK, Belgium, Netherlands and Germany with radioactivity levels sometimes up to 100 times natural background, and eventually dispersing with the wind around the Earth.

Greenpeace also collected samples of leaves and grasses from around La Hague, and sent them to the University of Groningen, Holland. The analysis revealed that radioactive carbon-14, which had been taken up by the plants in gaseous form, was two to seven times higher than normal background levels. COGEMA had no comprehensive monitoring network in place, and provided no official data on gaseous emissions to the public. La Hague’s discharge of carbon-14 gas increased three-fold between 1990 and 1996 alone.

Little wonder, given COGEMA’s shocking disregard for dumping radiation into the environment, that health impacts are showing up in the local population. The British Medical Journal has published findings of increased levels of leukemia around La Hague, findings that have been confirmed by the French government’s own studies.

COGEMA is also dead center in the middle of an international scandal involving high-level nuclear waste transportation. For 15 years COGEMA, along with nuclear plants and nuclear agencies in France, German, Switzerland, and the UK, was hiding a very big secret: international safety regulations for the transport of irradiated nuclear fuel rods to La Hague were regularly violated, up to radiation levels several thousand times the legal limit. Despite the hazards to its own workers and the public, COGEMA also--without authority--used its rail transfer station at a public train station as a "cleaning" facility for contaminated casks. Again, this shocking story came to light only through the efforts of activists and investigative journalists, this time spearheaded by the World Information Service on Energy office in Paris.

At a recent meeting at DOE HQ in Washington, NIX MOX activists asked DOE officials for COGEMA’s environmental record and for specific technical information from COGEMA on the safety (or lack thereof) of MOX fuel use in reactors. DOE Office of Fissile Materials Disposition director Laura Holgate, in charge of the MOX program and the awarding of the contract to COGEMA, commented that such information would merely "muddy the waters" and confuse the public. It’s quite troubling that DOE has entrusted COGEMA with handling tens of tons of deadly plutonium, for the muddiest waters of all are those at the end of COGEMA’s discharge pipe. --Kevin Kamps, NIRS Nuclear Monitor newsletter, March-April 2000.
References: Greenpeace press releases, as well as WISE-Paris and COGEMA’s websites.