Seeing a New Future for French Nuclear Site, After the Toxic Dust Has Settled via The New York Times

VAUJOURS, France — On a walk through her garden on a recent afternoon, Lisa Leclerc ran a Geiger counter over her mushrooms.

“See, normal,” she said, looking at a reading showing ordinary background levels of radiation.

The reading may have been normal, but the situation perhaps was not. The garden was tidy, the hanging baskets well-tended. But the neat spot where Ms. Leclerc had set up her patio furniture was not a typical garden. It was a corner of a former nuclear weapons testing site.

Ms. Leclerc was tending her flowers in a 19th century fort about nine miles from central Paris, where for four decades scientists detonated hundreds of miniature bombs containing combinations of uranium and explosives.

Formerly top secret, Fort de Vaujours was a key site for France’s nuclear arms program, with core components of the country’s first atom bombs developed here in the 1960s. Scientists blew up more than half a ton of uranium in 2,000 explosions at the fort, often outdoors, just 14 miles from the Eiffel Tower.

There were no full nuclear detonations at Vaujours, but parts of the fort were coated in radioactive dust. The site was closed in 1997 and, after efforts at decontamination, sealed to the public.
They are not the only ones with designs on the fort. Placoplatre, a subsidiary of the French conglomerate, Saint-Gobain, wants to demolish it to make way for a quarry for gypsum, a key ingredient in plaster. The company would extend a quarry it already operates next door, which would make it the largest gypsum producer in Europe, worth hundreds of millions of dollars and creating roughly 3,500 jobs.

But others are concerned about the safety of the site, and more than 90,000 people have signed a petition to block the project, amid fears that demolition and digging will spread any residual toxic dust.

The dispute has drawn in the French government. Government regulators had said the site could be considered sufficiently clean for redevelopment. But in February, independent researchers found contamination in bunkers, embarrassing the regulators who had repeatedly said they could find no evidence of it and reviving a long-running controversy over the site’s safety.

The environmental advocates who found the contamination have accused the Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety, a government agency, of either incompetence or a cover-up.

“It’s very bad,” said Bruno Chareyron, head of the Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity, an independent group campaigning for greater transparency around atomic sites and which found the contamination. In France, he said, the Institute for Radioprotection and Nuclear Safety “is the reference for monitoring radiation.”

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