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France Intensifies Probe Into Drone Flights

French Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy Segolene Royal leaves following the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Oct. 1, 2014.

Authorities in France continue to investigate a series of reported drone flyovers of nuclear power plants, even as they downplay security concerns. But French environmental groups are raising an alarm about the mysterious overflights.

French authorities report at least 15 flyovers by unidentified drones have taken place over nine nuclear power sites over the past month. That includes two, on Friday and Sunday, over the Dampierre-en-Burly nuclear site, in north-central France.

The French government is investigating the origin of the drones. It's against French law to fly within five kilometers of a nuclear plant. Violators are liable to a year in jail and a fine of nearly $100,000. France's state-owned power company EDF says the flyovers have had zero impact on the plants' operations and safety, but it will seek court action against those responsible.

Interviewed on French TV Sunday, Environment Minister Segolene Royal said the government is neither minimizing nor dramatizing the overflights. While illegal, she said, they pose no security risk to the plants, which are built to withstand earthquakes and planes crashing into them.

France's military also downplayed any threats.

Air Force spokesman Jean-Pascal Breton said the military continues to investigate the sightings, but for the moment there does not appear to be any increased security risk.

Environmental groups disagree. Greenpeace France, which has broken into nuclear plants to highlight their vulnerability, criticizes the government for minimizing the threat.

Greenpeace anti-nuclear campaigner Yannick Rousselet told French radio that the overflights were by drones of different sizes, some of which could carry heavy payloads. In one case, he said, four overflights were reported on a single October day, suggesting a concerted campaign. He also disputed the government's physical-security claims, saying no nuclear plant can withstand a plane crash.

Environmental groups have been lobbying for France to cut its reliance on nuclear energy. As part of a pre-election deal with the Greens Party, the ruling Socialist party has promised to shut 24 of the country's 58 nuclear reactors in the coming decade.