France went into damage-limitation mode following a blast at a nuclear re-processing plant on Monday which killed one person and injured four.

In a communiqué issued barely two hours after the explosion at the Centraco nuclear installation located near Marcoule, southern France, the nuclear safety agency, ASN declared the incident “closed”.

The agency said: “This event does not involve any radiological issue and no protective action was required for the population…. The building where the explosion occurred was not damaged. The injured do not suffer from any radiological contamination and all tests conducted by the licensee outside of the building have shown no trace of radioactive contamination.”

France is one of the world's leading exporters of nuclear technology and authorities were quick to minimise the seriousness of the explosion. Industry Minister Eric Besson speaking to journalists described the event as “an industrial accident and not a nuclear incident”.

However, what the ASN's communiqué failed to mention is that Centraco, the company in question which belongs to Socodei, a subsidiary of EDF which operates all of France's 58 reactors, has been hauled up by the ASN over 20 times in the past 10 years for negligence and non-compliance with safety regulations.

The last of these missives sent by the ASN to Socodei and Centralco is dated May 11 2011 and can be consulted on the ASN's website.

In the wake of the radioactive leaks from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, nervousness about the safety of nuclear installations remains high, especially given the as yet unresolved problem of nuclear waste disposal. With 58 reactors for a population of 65 million, France is the world's most nuclearised state per capita and nuclear reactors are a major export industry for French firms like Areva or EDF. Areva hopes to sell six EPR reactors to India, each of which has a 1650MW capacity, each for an estimated 7 billion Euros.

On Monday, six months to the day following the Fukushima disaster, the head of the Vienna-based IAEA called on countries not to “lower their guard” on nuclear safety. “We should not lose our sense of urgency, Yukiya Amano, told an IAEA governing council meeting. He said “visible and speedy improvements in nuclear safety — and not just good intentions — were required to restore confidence in nuclear energy. “The incident in France is such an example which reminds us we have to move forward quickly, Mr Amano said during a press conference. He said he had asked France to provide more detailed information on Monday's explosion in France.

For French authorities the explosion comes at a particularly inopportune moment — six months to the day after Fukishima, three days prior to the deadline on which EDF, Areva and the Atomic Energy Commission are to hand in reports on the safety of their nuclear installations, and the very day on which the IAEA's governing council meets to discuss nuclear safety.

The IAEA does not appear particularly inclined to bow to French demands to classify Monday's fatal blast as a non-nuclear industrial accident.

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