Who is flying drones over French nuclear plants?

Eye in the sky.
Eye in the sky.
Image: Reuters/Sebastien Nogier
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Somebody has been flying drones over nuclear power plants in France. Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said today (link in French) that an investigation has been launched to figure out who is responsible, and to “neutralize” the devices.

EDF, which operates France’s 58 reactors, said that drones were spotted over seven of its plants in recent weeks, usually late at night or early in the morning. The unmanned aircraft didn’t compromise the safety of the sites, the company said, but it has filed a complaint with police. France prohibits flights below 1,000 meters and within a five-kilometer radius of its nuclear plants (below 3,280 feet and within 3.1 miles).

Nuclear reactors in France.
Image: World Nuclear Association

Suspicion immediately turned to Greenpeace. The environmental activist group denied involvement, noting that “for each of its actions, Greenpeace acts openly and claims responsibility.”

Indeed, the green group has used drones in the past as part of its campaign to highlight perceived shortcomings in the safety of France’s nuclear network (pdf). These breaches led EDF to boost its spending on security by hundreds of millions of euros, according to Bloomberg.

Most notably, Greenpeace used a drone to film a paraglider dropping a smoke bomb on a reactor in 2012:

Greenpeace said that it supports the official investigation of the ”large-scale operation,” including co-ordinated flights over four separate sites on a single day two weeks ago.

At this stage, it isn’t clear whether the drone flights are the work of hobbyists, another green group, or something more sinister. Nuclear energy generates nearly three-quarters of France’s electricity, the largest share in the world. The government has pledged to cap its current nuclear capacity, boosting renewables and other energy sources so that only half of the country’s power comes from nukes by 2025. If fears over the safety of France’s extensive reactor network rise, it might hasten the shift.

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