The hilly Vaucluse region of southern France, near the town of Avignon, is known for its beautiful countryside rugged vineyards and craggy landscape topped with fairy-tale castles. I've cycled through it on my sweatily amateur attempts to eclipse Lance Armstrong and I remember it clearly for its pure rivers and healthy nature.
But this week, the Vaucluse has become known for something much more sinister - a spill of 75kg of unenriched uranium into the river system from one of France's nuclear power plants, Tricastin, that has seen residents banned from drinking well-water or swimming or fishing.
A Badly Timed Embarrassment
Nuclear power comprises 87% of France's electricity production, and with G8 nations and emerging economies intensively discussing the problem of carbon dioxide emissions this week in Hokkaido, Japan, this was a big embarrassment for a French government that has pushed nuclear technology abroad as a relatively clean and safe quick fix for the problem of global warming.
The Commission for Independent Radioactivity Research and Information, or CRIIRAD says it is planning to lodge a legal complaint over inadequate nuclear safety procedures, saying that there were 4 other incidents at Tricastin last year alone. After this leak, they claim that the radioactivity released into the environment was at least 100 times higher than the fixed limit for that site for the entire year.
Controversially, the public wasn't warned about the uranium leak until several hours after the incident. When the warning did come, bathers were evacuated from local lakes. One described the panic as if there had been a sighting of a shark. The ban on drinking groundwater is particularly worrying. In this part of France, many rural communities do reply on natural water supplies rather than piped water.
That delay, which authorities was due to the late discovery of the seepage and not down to deliberate secrecy, could prove vital when assessing the impact of the accident. I spoke to independent nuclear consultant John Large, who told me that every second counts when implementing the mitigating measures such as keeping the public away from potentially contaminated water:
"You have to act very quickly. The brunt of the health impact is taken during the first few hours. Unless the authorities act promptly, then the dose is taken up by humans very quickly.
The local population seemed to have been reassured by the nuclear safety authorities, who have said radioactive levels detected in rivers and lakes in the region are already decreasing and that the danger to human health is "slight".
48 hours from the leak, the story has been relegated to page 9 of the daily paper Le Figaro.
But John Large warns that is too early to breathe a sigh of relief.
He says the radioactivity levels are not the most worrying aspect of this accident. He told me that the health effect of unenriched uranium is more akin to a heavy metal like chromium or cobalt being released into the environment rather than a radioactive material: "To put it crudely, no-one's going to glow in the dark but this is a toxic material itself that shouldn't be released into the atmosphere."
The French anti-nuclear group Sortir du nucleaire or 'Abandon Nuclear Power', says that even if its radioactivity is low, such leaked uranium is "excessively dangerous" for people if ingested.
"We Know Best"
For John Large, it's a problem of responsible information flow and accountability. Little precise information is available about the chemical form in which the uranium was released into the environment, making it impossible for independent consultants to assess the true extent of the danger.
Large complains about the apparent covertness of the world-wide nuclear industry, saying that both the operators and the regulators adopt an overly paternalistic attitude:
"They seem to have the attitude that nuclear technology is simply too complicated for the average citizen to understand. They say trust in us because we'll ask the right questions and then give you the answers. And this often fails to address public concerns."
As the rest of the country turns its attention to more 'pressing' matters, the villagers of the Vaucluse are left with a gnawing worry about how much radioactivity and toxicity they have been exposed to. As John Large puts it: "In this case, I would say the authorities have acted too late, haven't provided sufficient information to the public and have taken the attitude that they know best."
Perhaps they are worried about panic reactions. But, as I learned when I visited southern Belarus two years ago, a lack of information breeds fears rather than soothing them.
Austria is against the development, but it is pretty clear that nuclear technology is going to play a big part in future European energy production.
With soaring oil prices combined and fears about energy security, recent polls suggest that even countries like Germany, with populations traditionally hostile to the atomic technology, are softening their opposition. Germany's plan to phase out nuclear energy by 2020, for example, looks increasingly likely to be reversed.
In these carbon conscious days, the Vaucluse leak probably won't dampen European politicians' enthusiasm for the atomic energy. We've all but forgotten the water-leak at the Krsko nuclear power plant in Slovenia, also reported late, that led Brussels to issue an EU-wide nuclear alarm last month. Last year's fire at a Krümmel nuclear power plant near Hamburg is a distant memory.
Perhaps, as you put it so well in Austria, "wir sind mit einem blauen Auge davongekommen." But when we are discussing nuclear safety, how many black eyes can we actually afford?