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France to Test Nuclear Plant Security After Greenpeace Occupation

French gendarmes block the access at the nuclear plant in Nogent-sur-Seine after Greenpeace activists managed to sneak into the plant in what they said was a bid to highlight the dangers of atomic energy, December 5, 2011

In a spectacular assault, the environmental group Greenpeace broke into a nuclear power plant in France Monday, as the French government is conducting nuclear safety tests. The gesture has fueled a hot debate over phasing out nuclear energy in Europe, and underscored divisions about nuclear power aired at climate talks in South Africa.

Greenpeace campaigners entered a nuclear power plant Monday about 95 kilometers southeast of Paris. They hoisted a banner scrawled with the word "facile" or "easy," describing the break-in. Greenpeace said it had targeted other sites in France, but it was not clear how many.

Greenpeace nuclear expert Sofia Magnoni said the assault showed French nuclear plants are not safe.

Speaking on French radio, Magnoni said the move underscored the weakness, not only of the security systems around French nuclear power plants, but also of so-called stress tests the government is conducting. The tests aim to avoid the kind of accident that occurred earlier this year at Japan's Fukushima-Daichi nuclear plant. Magnoni said the tests do not take into account the possibility of human threats like terrorist attacks.

But the French government denounced Greenpeace's action as irresponsible.

With 58 nuclear power plants, France is Europe's leading producer and exporter of nuclear energy and technology. Whether to phase out nuclear power here has become a top campaign issue, just five months from French presidential elections. Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy strongly defends nuclear power. The Green and main opposition Socialist parties are pushing for a gradual phaseout.

Green Party head Cecile Duflot hailed the Greenpeace invasion. In a television interview, she said zero risk does not exist when it comes to nuclear power and it is time to end French dependence on it.

Nuclear energy advocates argue it is not only safe, but it is a relatively clean form of energy that is indispensable in tackling climate change. Europe is deeply divided over nuclear power, with Germany announcing a phaseout of its plants following the Fukushima accident.