PARIS French green groups renewed a call on Saturday for France to end its dependence on nuclear power, saying a radiation leak at a Japanese atomic power plant showed there were no safety guarantees in the industry.
The Japanese Daiichi 1 facility north of Tokyo started leaking radiation after an explosion blew the roof off the plant that had been shaken in a massive earthquake on Friday, raising fears of a meltdown.
French officials were due to meet to discuss the situation and possible precautionary measures, but green groups said it was time to dump a technology that had led to the worst civilian nuclear disaster in Chernobyl in 1986.
"It's clear that when there's a significant natural disaster, all the so-called safety measures fail in a country with the highest level of technical know-how," Cecile Duflot, head of the green Europe Ecologie-Les Verts party, told Reuters.
"The nuclear risk is not a risk that can really be controlled."
France has 58 nuclear reactors spread over 19 sites, providing almost four-fifths of the country's electricity and making it the second-biggest nuclear country after the United States. Japan has 55 nuclear reactors.
French anti-nuclear network "Sortir du nucleaire" described Japan's stricken nuclear plant as a "new Chernobyl."
"This is indeed a very serious nuclear accident that is currently taking place in Japan, of a severity comparable to that of Three Mile Island and that of Chernobyl, which took place just about 25 years ago," the group said in a statement.
Chernobyl exploded in 1986, spewing out clouds of radioactivity. Human and technical error caused a confused response at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, leading to a meltdown of the core and a write-off of the reactor in 1979.
Japan's nuclear safety agency said they rated the incident as less serious than both accidents. [nTKZ00680]
Nuclear experts also said the explosion at the Japanese reactor should not reach the magnitude of Chernobyl because the reactor's core seemed to be intact.
But Greenpeace said the situation was "more and more alarming."
"An explosion in one reactor could already have released very high doses of radioactivity, and other reactors also seem to be in a critical situation," Greenpeace said in a statement.
France's ASN nuclear safety authority said it was stepping up the monitoring of air quality over France.
The president of the IRSN radiation protection and nuclear safety institution, Agnes Buzyn, told a news conference that real-time data on air quality would be made available to reassure the public.
Buzyn and ASN President Andre-Claude Lacoste were due to meet Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, Energy Minister Eric Besson and top executives from nuclear reactor maker Areva and power giant EDF at the ecology ministry later on Saturday.
(Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont; editing by Elizabeth Piper)