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France to study nuclear facility blamed for children’s leukemia

January 10, 1997

JOBOURG, France (AP) _ Reacting cautiously to a report that a nuclear waste processing plant may be causing leukemia in children, the French government said Friday it would conduct its own study.

Environment Minister Corinne Lepage said government scientists would check for abnormal levels of radioactivity in shellfish and sediment near the Normandy plant.

``There are some correlations, it’s true, but fortunately it’s very few cases,″ she said. ``We have to be careful and not panic.″

The report focuses on the La Hague plant, surrounded by razor wire and built into a bluff not far from where Allied troops came ashore on D-Day in World War II.

Children who live within 20 miles of the plant and play regularly on local beaches are three times more likely to develop the deadly cancer, researchers reported in Friday’s issue of the British Medical Journal. Eating local seafood also increased the risk, they said.

``Our main finding was that the use of local beaches by children ... was associated with the development of leukemia,″ said the study, led by Dr. Jean-Francois Viel, a professor of public health, biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Besancon.

The researchers said children were especially vulnerable because radiation exposure ``increases with decreasing body size.″

Researchers studied 219 children, including 27 with leukemia, in the picturesque seaside hamlets that surround the plant. The center, one of the world’s largest to process spent nuclear fuel, releases some discharge into the English Channel below, and smokestacks vent giant incinerators.

``There’s now a bundle of arguments strong enough to suspect a link″ between the leukemia and the plant, Viel said Friday.

``Now we have to find the biological proof: By what mechanism is this happening?″ he said.

The study raises questions about how closely the French government keeps tabs on the La Hague nuclear waste center and the more than 50 nuclear power plants that supply France with 80 percent of its power.

More jarring for local residents was the shadow it cast on their idyllic summer lifestyle, when children frolic in the surf as their parents eat oysters plucked fresh from the seaweed.

In Jobourg _ a tiny village of weatherbeaten fieldstone farms, 450 people and twice as many sheep _ residents seemed unwilling to believe the report.

``Up to now, we’ve had no problems since that plant opened in 1964. Nothing is hidden,″ said Mayor Jean-Charles Duval, an engineer at La Hague. ``Most of the population has confidence in the technicians. If there were really a danger, people would be upset. They’re not.″

Cogema, the state-owned company that operates the facility, denounced the study as ``false and alarmist.″ It said numerous government agencies monitor the plant, checking the amount of radioactivity in local water, milk, fish and mollusks.

``The radiation doses we’re talking about are minute, and in any case they don’t exceed the normal fluctuations of natural radioactivity,″ Cogema scientist Jean-Marie Gelas said Friday, urging instead a study of chemical pollutants in the Channel.

France’s nuclear industry has long been criticized for lacking independent regulators. Even the Institute for Nuclear Protection and Security, France’s nuclear watchdog, is state-run.

Two other nuclear sites are nearby, including a nuclear power station and naval dockyards that stock nuclear fuel for submarines. That makes the nuclear industry the region’s No. 1 employer.

``People are afraid of losing their jobs. They’re afraid of reprisals if they talk publicly,″ said Didier Anger, a Green Party politician who lives 12 miles from the plant.

Many French got the nuclear jitters late last year, when the government began distributing iodine pills to people living near nuclear power plants in the event of a meltdown or other catastrophe.

``We’re afraid,″ Anger said. ``Afraid of a nuclear accident.″

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