Critics slam France over nuclear deal

French green groups and opposition politicians Thursday attacked plans to build a French reactor in Libya for water desalination as a perilous masquerade that would encourage Muammar Qadhafi to get a nuclear bomb.But an official with France’s Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) insisted that international safeguards imposed after Libya scrapped its military nuclear programme would prevent any proliferation, and other experts agreed.

Sortir du Nucleaire (Get Out of Nuclear) said the official reason for the reactor was a “deception” as the civilian and military uses of nuclear technology were “indissociable”. “Delivering civilian nuclear energy to Libya would amount to helping the country, sooner or later, to acquire nuclear weapons,” it said.

Rich in oil and gas, Libya is “very amply self-sufficient in energy”, the group argued. “If it wishes to diversify, it should logically give priority to solar energy. The country enjoys remarkable levels of sunshine all year long.” A memorandum on building the new reactor was signed as French President Nicolas Sarkozy held talks with Libyan leader Qadhafi on Wednesday, a day after Tripoli freed six foreign medics. France played a key role, along with EU officials, in securing their release.

Greenpeace France said the deal “poses an enormous problem in terms of nuclear proliferation” and branded it as “in keeping with the French policy of irresponsible export of nuclear technology”. Greenpeace pointed out that previous French presidents had signed nuclear deals with the former shah of Iran, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and with South Africa during the apartheid era.

“Officially, the reactor being sold to Libya is to desalinate seawater to help the country’s supplies of drinking water. Who are they kidding?” asked Frederic Marillier, in charge of Greenpeace’s energy campaign.

The opposition Socialist Party asked: “Is it not a bit soon to be throwing ourselves into Qadhafi’s arms and giving him our international endorsement?” “Civilian nuclear [technology] can be used sooner or later to develop military applications,” it said.

The Green Party accused Sarkozy of “boundless cynicism” rooted in the risk of striking a nuclear deal with an “undemocratic state”.  The CEA’s Simon Nisan, who is in charge of nuclear-powered desalination projects, said Wednesday’s deal followed the signature in March 2006 of an agreement for bilateral cooperation in nuclear research and technology.

That accord focuses primarily on a nuclear research centre at Tajura, near Tripoli, whose reactor was supplied by the Soviet Union in 1979.

Under a pilot scheme, the Tajura reactor would be used to power a plant to desalinate seawater.

France would also draw up a study for building a reactor at another site, also for desalination, said Nisan.

Nisan added that International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) controls made it “almost impossible” to divert the technology to military use.

“The controls are so tight that you don’t have the right to remove the fuel without the presence of IAEA inspectors,” he said.

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