Danger zone

high levels of radioactive discharge into the English Channel from a reprocessing plant at La Hague, France, have increased the incidence of leukaemia in children of the region. The alleged removal of an underwater monitoring equipment by Cogema, the company that operates the plant, has led to the serious problem. The equipment had earlier been installed by Greenpeace ( Nature , Vol 387, No 6636).

A recent test conducted by Greenpeace shows that levels of radioactivity in sediments in the vicinity of the pipe that discharges waste from the plant into the English Channel, has exceeded European norms. The pipe has now become the flashpoint of a lengthy battle between Greenpeace and Cogema. After the revelation, Greenpeace filed charges against the company in France.

The revelations were made earlier this year when the mouth of the pipe was exposed to a beach open to the public due to exceptionally low tides. Consequently, Greenpeace requested a private nuclear monitoring group to measure the level of radioactive waste in the English Channel. The investigations showed that apart from releasing the highly toxic radionuclide iodine-129 within a seven km radius of the plant, it had also caused air pollution.

According to the nuclear monitoring group, the scale of authorised outputs amounted to a figure greater than the discharges of all the world's nuclear reactors taken together. "A person remaining in the vicinity of the pipe for four hours would have received a dose of radioactivity exceeding the annual maximum dose,' says Bruno Chareyron, an official of the group.

A government body, Office de Protection contre les Rayonnements Ionisants ( opri ), which is responsible for carrying out spot checks on Cogema's monitoring has also come under fire following the episode. The body, however, has explained that it had restricted measurements to the beaches, and had ignored the area around the end of the pipe. After the controversy, France's environment and health ministers have extended their support to Greenpeace. The health ministry has instructed opri to carry out a detailed radiological survey around area of the pipe.

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