Fukushima: France sets check of reactors by year end

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Prime Minister Francois Fillon on Thursday asked the country's top nuclear safety body to inspect all of France's reactors by year's end in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident.

"I ask you to carry out a study of safety at nuclear installations, in priority nuclear reactors, in the light of the ongoing accident at the Fukushima plant," Fillon said in a letter to Andre-Claude Lacoste, head of the Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN).

The government expects "preliminary conclusions" by the end of 2011, the letter said.

Three of the six reactors at Fukushima suffered partial meltdowns after the March 11 quake and tsunami struck northeastern Japan, and two pools holding spent fuel rods have run dangerously short of water.

A radioactive plume, caused by blasts and fire at the plant, is encircling the globe at high altitude, triggering fears of a disaster with long-lasting consequences.

The inspection will look at five factors: the risks from flooding, earthquakes, loss of electrical power and loss of cooling and the state of "operational management of accident situations".

France is proportionately the world's biggest user of nuclear power, under a huge construction programme that was launched after the oil shocks of the 1970s.

It has 58 reactors in 19 power plants providing around 75 percent of its electricity needs, the highest of any country. Only the United States has more reactors.

Separately, Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said the inspection would be "more extensive" and "more transparent" than France's previous safety checks.

She did not rule out closure of a reactor if it carried a "major risk".

"We are carrying out this audit to respond primarily to the question that the French public is asking, and I understand why it is a source of distress: Is the same thing possible in our country?" Kosciusko-Morizet told AFP.

She added: "When it comes to transparency, France hasn't always been exemplary. It learned a lot from Chernobyl."

In the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, the French authorities became a laughing stock when they declared the fallout from the stricken Ukrainian plant had stopped at the French borders.

In 2006, as the country embarked on a programme of next-generation reactors, the government sought to tackle doubts about openness by passing a law on "nuclear transparency and openness".

This notably transformed the ASN, until then a government agency, into an "independent administrative authority" with a wide scope of action and intervention on safety issues.

© 2011 AFP

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