Bernard Stich is the head teacher of the ‘Arc-en-Ciel’ (Rainbow) primary school. It has 180 pupils and is situated in the Alsace region of eastern France. It is a school like many others, except for one big difference: here teachers and children undergo drills to be prepared for a nuclear accident.
Bernard Stich said: “Our first duty is to get the children to safety, which means getting them indoors. Once indoors, school life can continue as normal. Once the children are safe and all the windows and doors are closed, we can live here quite normally for a certain period of time. There are toilets, there’s water.”
From making sure all doors and windows are shut, that the phones are working and fresh water is available, Mr. Stich said it is part of his job to be ready: “We do this drill every year, we check that it’s up to standard, because we know that it could, perhaps, happen. Personally, I trust the management to prevent it happening, but we live with the risk.”
Living with the risk – that has become a familiar phrase for the residents of Fessenheim, the site of France’s oldest nuclear power plant and one that has come increasingly under scrutiny since Japan’s nuclear accident. Fessenheim, which has been operating since 1977, is built directly over the Rhine fault line. It is also on ground water.
Jean-Paul Lacote of the ‘Alsace Nature’ environmental group has been demonstrating against nuclear energy since the mid-1970s. He is French but lives just over the border from Fessenheim, in Germany. Although the last major earthquake in the area, was in 1356, like other environmentalists he warns there is no guarantee there could not be another, even stronger quake.
He believes Fessenheim should be closed: “Normally a nuclear plant has cooling towers. But this plant has no cooling towers. They take water from the canal which is always full. But the canal could develop a leak. There’s another problem too, large sections of the nuclear plant are built beneath the water level of the canal. So if the canal sprang a leak, the plant would be flooded.”
But those who run the nuclear plant beg to differ. EDF, the French electricity company, said Fessenheim is constantly reinforced and a protective barrier has been built to avoid any flooding or rupture problems. For those in charge of Fessenheim, there is little doubt that the catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant will make France even more watchful, more transparent about whether their reactors are safe.
Thierry Rosso, the director of the Fessenheim Nuclear Power Plant said: “Of course, in France there is a strictly independent nuclear authority which enforces high safety standards and which regularly inspects this site. They made 22 visits to the site in 2010 for example, that’s around once a fortnight on average. And during inspections, the nuclear safety authority evaluates the way we implement the safety rules, the road safety code, our management of this installation and the evaluations are done in a very transparent way and I can tell you that at the annual meeting, the safety authority said that we maintained completely satisfactory standards in terms of detection and declaration of error margins.”
Lots of information, lots of transparency – comforting words to a country that has 58 nuclear reactors, the second highest after the United States. But for some, this information just covers up a political decision to keep nuclear plants open, no matter what the risk.
Environmentalist Jean-Paul Lacote said: “Fifteen years ago it was really hard to tie them down and get them to answer questions. They just fobbed you off a bit. Right now, the idea is to give you loads of information, which means you’re drowning in data, but with no way of evaluating it. It’s just a way of saying don’t worry, everything’s fine, have a look, there’s nothing to see.”
Fessenheim’s 2,500 residents have gotten used to the recent onslaught of media coverage after the Japanese catastrophe once again cast doubts on nuclear safety. Georges Berenger has lived in Fessenheim working as a barber since 1961. He says at first there was opposition to building nuclear reactors in what was once the poorest region of Alsace.
Georges Berenger said: “Before the plant was built, someone came round to our house on a Sunday afternoon saying they’d come to save us from nuclear danger! Well, that was 30 years ago. So I asked him if he knew Fessenheim. He said no, no-one knew Fessenheim. Even the people from round here were leaving because there was nothing, no work, no money.”
There is little doubt that Fessenheim’s nuclear plant has brought prosperity to the town. The plant employs over 900 people full-time, and one third of them live here. It is said that Fessenheim’s revenues are equivalent to those of a town five times its size. But its deputy mayor François Wassmer insists the safety of his residents is the top priority.
“Fessenheim was put into service in 1977, so that makes 30 years that we’ve lived with the nuclear plant. So for me, it’s just part of the industrial landscape and today, well, I don’t know if you’ve been able interview people living here or people in Fessenheim… they aren’t particularly frightened, even after what happened in Japan. There were a few questions perhaps, but no special fear, you don’t feel any special fear here in Fessenheim,” Wassmer said.
Every four years Fessenheim’s pharmacy issues a fresh batch of iodine pills to residents living within a 10 kilometre radius of the nuclear power plant. The pills are a treatment to protect the thyroid from any eventual radiation. It is a routine Fessenheim’s residents are used to. But with the Japanese catastrophe, people living outside the radius are worried.
Stephan Sembach, the pharmacist in Fessenheim told euronews: “I’ve even had phone calls from Paris, Besancon, and Lyon; from people who are worried by what’s happened in Japan. They don’t have a nuclear reactor on their doorsteps, so they are worried. They think it would be good to have some iodine tablets in the house just in case. So they phone me, or come into the shop for iodine tablets, but because they don’t live around here, they don’t live within the 10 kilometre zone around the plant, I can’t supply them with tablets.”
More than 200 kilometres away from Fessenheim, Chantal Garnier can understand why people even far away from nuclear reactors are scared. Chantal, who lives in the Jura region is with the French Association of Thyroid Cancer patients.
She developed thyroid cancer less than a year after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. She blames a lack of transparency from the French nuclear authorities who, in her words, claimed the nuclear cloud had stopped at the border. She and other thyroid patients are hoping to sue the French authorities for negligence.
She understands why today, many people still worry about a potential nuclear fallout: “People like us who live 200 or 300 hundred kilometres, or even further away from a nuclear reactor, have nothing to protect them. We know that if there was an accident, radiation would get into the rivers, the lakes, absolutely everywhere and we don’t have any protection against that. But it’s true that the people very close to reactors feel more protected because they have their little preventive pills. They don’t take them, but they have them so that they could take them if they were authorised to.”
A feeling of protection, of safety – while these sentiments are shared by most of Fessenheim’s population, they also claim they are not naive.
François Wassmer, the deputy mayor said: “We aren’t protected from all risks. No industry today is 100 percent risk-free. But the risk is minimal.”
Stephan Sembach, the pharmacist added: “We have a nuclear reactor next door to us. That changes things, but doesn’t turn daily life upside down. We live with it. It isn’t a worry at all. We don’t feel like we have a great weight on our shoulders.”
While Fessenheim’s residents have learned to live with their nuclear neighbour, calls for a national referendum on the future of nuclear energy could pave the way for troubled waters in a debate which is far from over.