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Nuclear Information in France - As Transparent as Mud

Mycle Schneider

«We practice total transparency»,
Anne Lauvergeon, CEO, AREVA

«Transparency is a conjuror’s concept»,
Daniel Pennac, French writer

The term “transparence” has been adopted by the French nuclear industry ever since Gorbachev’s glasnost had to be translated into French language, and since the devastating public perception of post-Chernobyl information management blew a hole in the nuclear consensus smoke screen. You must remember that officials stated at the time that French territory was exempt from radioactive fallout from the Soviet disaster. While on the German, Italian, and Swiss sides of the border vegetables and milk were destroyed, the French population was told that everything was safe to consume.

Since then, nothing much has changed in practice, except that the public relations budgets of the national nuclear companies skyrocketed and transparency became part of the desired image. When it comes to nuclear issues in France, the credibility of industry and government remains amongst the lowest in the European Union. When asked which sources of information they would trust on radioactive waste, 15% of French citizens polled trust the nuclear industry, 14% the government. Environmental organisations and independent scientists in France, scored 48% and 43% respectively – among the most trusted in Europe.1 But hardly anywhere – at least in the western part of the continent – is it more difficult to work outside the nuclear establishment. Even simple statistical information is withheld or its release delayed for months, making its use for a specific study or analysis task with any sort of deadline completely impossible.

Here is just the latest of countless examples that I have experienced over the last 20 years. On 26 March 2007, I call up the scientific advisor of the Special and Permanent Information Commission (CSPI) of the La Hague site to inquire about the status of the fulfilment of reprocessing contracts (by country, not even by client) and the status of the respective quantities of spent fuel still in storage. The CSPI is a committee that includes representatives from the operator AREVA, the government, local authorities, MPs, and environmental organisations. The CSPI advisor tells me that he does not have the information at hand but will ask for it.

On 15 June 07, almost three months and several e-mails after my initial inquiry, the advisor sends a written request (by e-mail and snail mail) to AREVA to update a 17-page public AREVA document from 2004 that I consider as the format of the required information. As of 5 September 07, no news, so I send another e-mail. The next day, the advisor replies by mail: “I have phoned the management this morning to find out when I would get a reply to my requests dated 5 April and 15 June (…). The secretary of the directorate shall call back; I’m awaiting the answer…”

By 6 December 07, over eight months after my first inquiry, I am starting to get somewhat annoyed and ask whether the absence of any response means that “the CSPI is now entirely incapable of obtaining and supplying simple information in a reasonable timeframe? Does it mean that it does not make any sense anymore to repeat requests over and over again, month after month?” On 12 December 07, I receive a message from the CSPI advisor:

“To my great surprise I have not received a response yet. (…) I have received excuses. (…) Now that we are at the end of 2007, it is better to wait for the beginning of the year 2008 in order to be able to add the results of 2007 to those requested of 2006 and 2005. Thus the request is relaunched and I apologize on my end for that difficulty to obtain a document. I’m in contact with the person that has committed himself and I’ll take care of it as soon as January [2008].”

On 4 April 2008, one year and nine days after my simple information request and following endless e-mail exchanges, the CSPI advisor gives the following amazing explanation:

“I have not received the promised dossier [from AREVA]. The reason I was given is the publication of the decree 2008-209 dated 3 March 2008 defining the foreign spent fuel and waste management procedures. (…) Article 8 responds to your request and to that of the CSPI: the inventory of stored French and foreign spent fuel and radioactive waste is subject of an annual report published before 30 June the following year.”

An article in a decree that “responds” to an information request? That is yet another innovative interpretation of “transparency.” In response to my protests, the advisor states: “I deplore this as much as you do and submit the problem to the CSPI Board in view of possible action.” To be continued. Possibly.

In June 2006, France has passed the law on Transparency and Security in the Nuclear Field, known as the TSN. According to the Nuclear Safety Authorities’ (ASN) Annual Report 2006:

“Access to documents and information in the field of civil nuclear energy is thus a reality and applies to the public authorities responsible for supervising it.”

A reality? The French Nuclear Safety Authorities have made progress over the last few years and grant public access, probably unique in Europe, to all inspection follow-up letters to operators. However, as the AREVA attitude documented here illustrates, the reality of operator attitude, so far, refers the following interpretation by the Safety Authorities to the world of wishful thinking:

“The TSN law considerably broadens access to nuclear-related information. It in fact estblishes a statutory right of access by the public to information held by the licensees of nuclear installations and those in charge of radioactive material transports. While complying with specific arrangements (public safety industrial or commercial confidentiality, etc.), they are now required to transmit to whoever so requests the documents and information in their possession and related to their activities.”

Steven Aftergood, Director of the Project on Government Secrecy of the US Federation of American Scientists, has said that “information is the oxygen of democracy.” For an independent expert on nuclear issues in France the practice of “total transparency” remains a permanent threat of suffocation.


Mycle Schneider is an independent consultant on energy and nuclear policy based in Paris. He can be contacted at mycle [at] orange [dot] fr.

  1. 1. See Eurobarometer Special, 227; 63/2, June 2005.