Unprecedented evidence of eroded safety culture at La Hague plutonium facility

by Mycle Schneider

Chronical understaffing, "frantic cost-cutting", serious incidents--trade unions are raising "a serious alert message" concerning deteriorating working conditions and their impact on safety. One should add, and potentially on security.

On 23 March 2017, international news agency Reuters revealed the existence of an unsigned, internal memo from the Committee on Health, Safety and Working Conditions (CHSCT) dating from late 2016. The document reveals a list of serious shortcomings in management and working conditions. In particular, management measures are said to "only confirm a situation of already precarious, chronical under-staffing". These shortcomings would lead to "situations, where there is only one or two persons in the control room to manage four, five or six centralized control-command positions". The document claims that, in order to reach production targets, "management tolerates without any problem that the staffing is topped up by trainees".

At least five, possibly more high-level vitrified waste canister have been produced that do not meet technical specifications, because a leak in the glass feed went undetected. Even after detection of a suspicious change in the exhaust gas composition, management refused to investigate as "production shall not be stopped". French Nuclear Safety Authority's (ASN) is still investigating the incident.

The health department's annual report indicates that "the number of consultations of the work psychologist by employees has exploded". In fact, a disproportionately high number of suicides at the La Hague facility is notorious.

"We are launching a serious alert message: Until recently we pursued excellence in matters of safety, now we just try to be okay, which makes no sense in an industry that has no room for error," the CHSCT note said.

Helene Heron, head of the ASN Caen unit, which oversees La Hague, told Reuters: "We have not observed a deterioration of safety on the site." It remains unclear, what the ASN's thermometer for "deterioration of safety" looks like.

ASN's boss Pierre-Franck Chevet told the press in January 2017 that he considers the general context of nuclear safety in France "worrying, even more so than in the beginning of the year 2016". Chevet stated: "The [nuclear] industry is still in an extremely difficult financial, economic and budgetary situation, while it is confronted with very significant challenges. The Nuclear Safety Authority, which is participating in the control of the whole system, is also lacking human and financial means."

As the union paper put it, "frantic cost-cutting is jeopardizing long-established procedures".

Note: See also a French edition of the Reuters release: "Les syndicats alertent sur la sûreté du site de La Hague d'Areva", 23 March 2017