France says ‘no nuclear accident’ during submarine fire

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Toulon (France) (AFP)

A 14-hour fire on one of France’s nuclear-powered attack submarines did not lead to an atomic accident because measures were taken to protect its reactor, the defence minister said on Saturday.

The submarine was under renovation at the southern base of Toulon when the fire broke out at about 10:30 am (08:30 GMT) on Friday in a hard-to-reach part of the lower bow, the navy said.

It then took about 100 firefighters and 150 support crew members to extinguish the blaze around midnight (2200 GMT Friday), the navy said in a statement.

“There was a fire, but no, there was no nuclear accident,” said Defence Minister Florence Parly.

Parly added that during the fire “measures were taken in the aft area to protect the nuclear reactor compartment.”

The navy said earlier that there were no casualties and no radiation risk because the nuclear fuel had been removed during the renovation of La Perle (The Pearl), one of France’s six nuclear attack submarines.

The extent of the damage — and what started the fire — was not immediately clear, but a Naval Group Repair Centre official described the incident as “serious.”

The regional authorities said that pollution and radioactivity tests carried out by independent experts had found nothing extraordinary.

But French’s nuclear monitoring association CRIIRAD said a nearby measurement found that radioactivity levels had fluctuated at low levels for a few hours in the days leading up to the fire.

The NGO said that this “troubling” phenomenon “could have several explanations” but that it “raised questions”.

Parly responded by saying that “a natural radioactive element was emitted in infinitesimal quantities before the fire,” adding that it showed that “we have an extremely sensitive and effective detection system.”

Parly said a damage analysis would determine whether the vessel could be repaired, adding that he was lucky that almost all of the submarine’s equipment was not on board.

A judicial investigation and a technical investigation have been launched.

The submarine, which entered service in 1993, docked in Toulon in January for 18 months of renovation work that from its ability to remain operational until the end of the decade.

The ship, which can dive up to 300 meters (985 feet) with a crew of 70, is an attack submarine used to track ships, escort aircraft carriers, conduct coastal intelligence missions and deploy special forces.

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