Greenpeace's octocopter ascends after dropping the ignited flare canister on the roof of a nuclear fuel pool building at La Hague, Normandy. Image: Greenpeace France

France: Greenpeace flies two c-drones over nuclear site in Normandy, drops ignited flare on roof

Agriculture • mining • environment Security • law enforcement • countermeasures

The environmental group Greenpeace France flew two c-drones — one of which ignited and dropped a distress flare canister — over the world’s largest nuclear fuel processing facility at La Hague on the Cotentin peninsula of Normandy on Friday morning local time. There was no damage reported.

A press release, video recording and photographs were published by the activist group at noontime on their website and through social media to call attention to the four 30-year-old pool buildings, claiming the structures have inadequate protection while storing a greater amount of spent radioactive fuel than the buildings were designed to handle.

The group said in its statement:

Greenpeace has demonstrated, once again, that French nuclear facilities are not sufficiently protected against the risks of external attack. But what is particularly shocking is that this drone was able to ignite distress flares on the roof of the pool, in other words the weakest point of a building containing the largest amount of radioactive material in the world.

Spent nuclear fuel is highly radioactive and is kept cool in pools of water for reprocessing for several years. The nuclear facility at La Hague, the world’s largest by tonnage according to industry promoter the World Nuclear Association, processes fuel from France and other countries. The United States does not reprocess spent nuclear fuel, preferring to bury it, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The site at La Hague and its shipments of nuclear material are regularly targeted by Greenpeace, as well as other nuclear sites in France; last July, the group flew a Superman mannequin into the nuclear plant at Bugey. During the incident at La Hague yesterday, one drone filmed a second, a large octocopter which ignited and released a smoke canister onto the roof of a building. The flare-carrying c-drone appeared to be the S1000 model by Dà-Jiāng Innovations (DJI), the world’s market leader. As the smoke bomb emitted brown, and then reddish orange smoke, the two drones ascended, sharing the sky with a flock of seagulls, and left the facility. The Gendarmerie Nationale, France’s national police, were called out and stopped and searched nearby vehicles, but there were no arrests. Greenpeace did not identify the drone pilots.

Maritime distress flares, often ignitable by a pull cord, are readily available in the Cotentin, which has dozens of harbors large and small. The peninsula’s isolation from the mainland is the main reason the Flamanville and La Hague nuclear plants were built there.

In a statement, Orano, which one year ago changed its name from Areva, said:

This morning, Orano la Hague detected the intrusion of two drones in the airspace of the site, one of which deposited a flare on the roof of one of the pools. The overflight of these drones had no impact on the safety of the installations and the personnel. The authorities were immediately informed. Orano condemns the overflight of its Hague site and announces that a complaint will be filed.

Orano denied on Twitter that the pools are saturated, and that the sheet metal roofs of the pool buildings are inadequate. A 1990 study of the four pool buildings at La Hague, available online from the International Atomic Energy Agency [PDF], indicates that a concrete wall of 50cm (19.7 in) of the type used at La Hague can withstand the impact of a single-engine 2000kg (4400 lb) aircraft such as a Cessna 210. However, a sheet metal roof would likely be far weaker. That said, the study does mention that if such a “projectile” were to fall into the pool, its kinetic energy would be absorbed by the water and the pool would likely be undamaged. The C-Drone Review did not find more recent crash impact studies for the site available, for example employing computer modeling, of a small aircraft crash on such a steel roof or the possibility of an airborne attack with explosives such as the failed assassination attempt on the president of Venezuela in August.

In France, overflight of nuclear sites are forbidden; offenders can be jailed for up to 1 year and fined up to €75,000 ($85,000). The official French Géoportail cartographic database for drone pilots clearly shows the 5 km (3 mi) exclusion zone surrounding the plant at La Hague, as does the Airmap application. DJI provides “geofencing” of sensitive sites such as airports through its Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) database, launched in 2016, which restricts flight of DJI drones based on GPS (Global Positioning System) geolocalisation; a drone will land or return to its takeoff point if a no-fly zone (NFZ) is entered (professional pilots can temporarily deactivate these restrictions by submitting forms in advance justifying their flight plan). However, the online version of DJI’s GEO map appears to show no restriction in place for overflights of the La Hague exclusion area, a serious oversight if this is the case. DJI does remind users that exclusion zones are for information only, and that sole responsibility for respecting local laws and regulations remains with the pilot.

In France, as of January 1, hobbyist drone pilots must register their drones heavier than 800 grams (1.8 lb) in the AlphaTango portal and follow a mini training session online on the FoxAlphaTango site.