Saint Laurent Nuclear Accidents and their Implications

Ryan Dudzinski
March 19, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

Early French Nuclear

Fig. 1: A1 and A2 reactors at the Saint Laurent nuclear processing facility. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

France, the first country to patent a nuclear power station, began development efforts in 1952. With the release of a five year energy plan, the French government called for positive nuclear development and production. [1] This began a massive shift from fossil fuels, which the world heavily relied on at the time, to nuclear power, especially in Europe and more specifically France. By 1960 only 0.2 percent of French electricity output was derived through atomic power. [1] Yet, the 1963 oil crisis led to a "boom" in nuclear French energy, forcing France to build other plants, one of which was the Saint-Laurent nuclear power plant in Loir-et-Cher. [2] Though extremely practical in theory, nuclear development has its dangers. Before the Saint Laurent nuclear facility accidents, France knew nothing of what the nuclear downsides entailed.

Saint Laurent Accidents of 1969 and 1980

It was in 1969 that disaster struck the nuclear facility of Saint Laurent. The facility consists of two gas-cooled, graphite moderated reactors (GCR) known as A1 and A2 (see Fig. 1). It was on October 17, 1969 that uranium, necessary for the nuclear reaction to take place, melted and caused a partial meltdown. Because of this, workers spent a full year cleaning and repairing the reactor, often working in a highly radioactive environment. It was this accident, coupled with an announcement given by the president of Électricité de France (EDF) Marcel Boiteux saying that France would stray away from GCRs, that signaled the end of the gas-graphite program in France. [3] This novel experience in France's history did not change its future course in regards to nuclear development. French governmental leaders took a back seat as they justified the nuclear accident with the immense energy that nuclear yields.

Nearly a decade later the Saint Laurent plant experienced another nuclear accident, ranking a four out of seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale, equal to the level of the 1969 accident. Reactor A2 was shut down for two and a half years after two fuel elements melted where six to eight stack channels had become obstructed by a metal plate. [4] More information was requested about the 1980 incident and the subsequent cleanup at Saint Laurent A2, yet, Andrá Gauvenet, the Inspector General for Nuclear Safety and Protection, provided none. He only stated the accident resulted in no release of radioactivity to the environment. [4]

Public Outlook

France has historically been one of the world's top producers of nuclear energy, but the aforementioned accidents surely skewed public opinion in a different direction. A survey was conducted six years after the 1980 accident to gauge the French peoples' opinion on nuclear. Interestingly enough, 53 percent of the respondents were found to believe that continued nuclear development was necessary in France. But, 61 percent would be "rather worried" or "very worried" if a nuclear station were built near them. [4] Judging by the numbers stated, the public understands nuclear power's benefits to society, yet acknowledge the source's dangers and flaws.

It was the highly fluctuating prices of oil in the 1980s as well as the expensive field of nuclear development that made France question as to whether the country should continue their efforts in nuclear, or divest from nuclear and seek alternative sources of energy. Governmental justification of nuclear rooted itself in how the source of energy helped the country as a whole. For example, its development would help the trade deficit by substituting imported oil for French produced uranium, the real cost of energy would be reduced even with significant development expenses, and energy supplies would be shifted from the middle east to more stable regions. [1] There have been several issues connected with nuclear energy development in France preclude calling it a true "success story" of nuclear energy development but in France's opinion its upsides far outweigh its downsides. [2] Only time will tell how France's extreme investment in the program effects the country in the long term.

© Ryan Dudzinski. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] T. J. Daemen, "The Need for Liability Constraints in Successful High-Technology Development: A Comparison of the French and U.S. Commercial Nuclear Programs," Northwest J. Int. Law Bus. 13, 684 (1993).

[2] R. Iskhakov, "French Nuclear Energy," Physics241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.

[3] G. Hecht, "Enacting Cultural Identity: Risk and Ritual in the French Nuclear Workplace," J. Contemp. Hist. 32, 483 (1997).

[4] L. J. Carter, Nuclear Imperatives and Public Trust: Dealing With Radioactive Waste (RFF Press, 1987).