Launching the new French regulatory agency

3 May 2002

France's quasi-autonomous nuclear safety authority published its annual review for 2001 on 20 March, reflecting a restructuring of its nuclear regulatory unit completed only days before. By Jacques Richardson

The long-awaited reorganisation of the French national nuclear safety and radiation protection system was completed earlier this year. The Direction Générale de la Sûreté Nucléaire et de la Radioprotection (DGSNR) replaces the Direction de la Sûreté des Installations Nucléaires (DSIN), and incorporates the radiation office of the Direction Générale de la Santé (DGS), part of the radiation inspection wing of the Office de Protection contre les Rayonnements Ionisants (OPRI), and part of the Permanent Secretariat of the Commission Interministérielle des Radioéléments Artificiels (CIREA).

The Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN) is made up of the DGSNR and its regional divisions. The ASN receives technical support from the Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire.

Current safety issues

The calamitous events of 11 September, 2001 in the USA, and the huge ammonium nitrate explosion ten days later at a factory in Toulouse (France) heightened increased security consciousness on the part of both the ASN and the management of 163 nuclear-related facilities throughout France. Although the New York-Washington-Toulouse events were of non-nuclear character, they spurred intensification of French nuclear plant security to the extent that the Ministry of Defence deployed anti-aircraft units and fighter planes to help safeguard the most critical installations.

At the launch of ASN's review of 2001, DGSNR director general André-Claude Lacoste, the engineer who directs all nuclear installation safety in France, outlined five major areas that reinforced official attention to nuclear security in 2001-2.

Reorganisation of the DGSNR

With Lacoste at its head, assisted by three deputies, the DGSNR has been fully effective since 1 March of this year. The DGSNR is responsible for all technology pertaining to nuclear safety (reactors, confinement, tubing, valves), as well as relational concerns (interaction with constructors and other suppliers, local communities and the general public, trades unions, professional contacts abroad).

The new organisation is responsible to three ministries in Paris: Economy and Finance, including its subministry for Industry and Trade; Labour and Solidarity, which embraces Health; and Regional Planning and the Environment. In a real emergency, the agency reports directly to the prime minister. And although France's ecologists have not been overly active in comparison with many "greens" abroad, nuclear risks — especially the transport and storage of wastes — inevitably trigger quick and conspicuous protest. Official concern for this part of the electorate cuts across all the ministerial boundaries.

Two incidents occurring in 2001 merit note. An error in the reloading of fuel at Dampierre 4 in central France "could have, in other circumstances, led to an uncontrolled nuclear reaction". At Cattenom 3, along the river Rhine, "a large number of fuel rods were found damaged". Although the situation "was not intrinsically dangerous", it raised questions "about why this happened and the need for better means of watchfulness over such deterioration".

Policy of transparency

Assuring a policy of transparency, the ASN stressed continuing professional competence and rigour, openness towards the public and its apprehensions, smooth relations with parliament, making safety the byword on the authority's Internet site ( as well as on its Minitel magazine (call, in France only, 3614 MAGNUC), and even rendering public — as of February 2002 — verbatim reports of all technical inspections conducted on nuclear facilities.

Fuel issues

The third area concerns dealing with progress in nuclear fuels and rationalising the nuclear fuel cycle. Because reactor fuels contain fissile uranium-235 and plutonium, the more fissile material contained by the fuel the better the chances for long use. One way to improve the economic performance of reactors currently in use is an approach also being used in other countries: Electricité de France (EdF) has succeeded in raising combustion rates. Examples are the CYCLADES experience with the older 900MWe reactors at Bugey and Fessenheim, or the GEMMES experience at the 1300MWe units. EdF has indicated its willingness to continue exploiting this technique, and the ASN itself is taking a closer look at fuel regimes useable over the period 2000-2010.

Still in the fuels sector, French engineers realised as early as the 1980s that seismic disturbances could result in damage to, or destruction of, buildings at the Cadarache plant near the Mediterranean coast, and that changes would need to be made concerning MOX production there. Now, together with the Cogema firm, final plans are underway to end Cadarache's MOX operations, transferring them to a Melox facility being developed at Marcoule (not far away) by early 2003 at the latest. Lacoste pointed out that approval to transfer fuel production to the Melox facility would require a public inquiry into the application. He also stressed that the timetable for closure of the Cadarache facility would not be influenced by any delay in the approval process for expansion of the Melox capacity.

Crisis management

The American events of last September and the fatal chemical disaster at Toulouse have had a major influence in nuclear safety reorganisation in France during the past year, particularly in the management of any possible "nuclear crisis". An exercise held during 2001 at Gravelines, on the Channel coast, was the first time that a real exchange of information was tested according to international agreements on post-accident procedure. This underlined the importance of continuing to train and profit from such exchanges as more security exercises are carried out and their effectiveness improves.

Harmonising safety standards

The final key element outlined by Lacoste was the harmonisation of the various approaches to nuclear safety undertaken by the Western European Nuclear Regulators' Association (WENRA), the European Union's nuclear safety monitor and standard setter. The countries involved are Belgium, Britain, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland (although not in the EU), in addition to France — which currently holds the chairmanship. WENRA's two major aims are to provide the EU "with an independent capability of analysis to examine problems of nuclear safety and its regulation in candidate States for membership in the Union" and "developing a common approach to matters of nuclear safety and its regulation" with particular regard to the problems of the EU itself.

Regulatory reformation

To all these ends, what Lacoste terms "the reform of nuclear control in France", his organisation has established "inventory areas" for improved radiation protection in two pilot zones: the Rhône-Alps region in southern France and Lower Normandy in the north. France is already benefiting from new dosimetry norms proposed by the Royal College of Radiology in Britain. Lacoste and his colleagues insist on more and better training and retraining throughout the French nuclear community, combining the talents of scientists, engineers, physicians and the public — the latter to include "anti-nuclears" as well as "pro-nuclears". Lacoste's agency works on a regular budget of 80 million Euro's this year, supplemented by radiation protection fees paid by various clients.

The ASN's annual report on the safety and radiation protection measures enforced in 2001 carries considerable technical detail and is finely turned out. Later this year this document will appear for the first time in a language other than French: the English edition is scheduled to be released in July 2002.
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