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France probes alleged nuclear power cover-up: source

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France gets 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power
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French prosecutors are investigating claims that officials at a nuclear power station covered up incidents of malfunction at an ageing plant, a source close to the probe told AFP on Thursday.

The move follows a legal complaint filed by a whistleblower, a former engineer at the Tricastin power station in the southeast of the country.

In his complaint to police in October 2021 targeting nuclear plant operator EDF, the engineer, whose identity was not given, said he had repeatedly alerted the company to the incidents and also written to the environment minister.

Events that the nuclear operator failed to declare to the national safety agency ASN, or played down, include an unexplained power surge at one of the reactors in 2017 and flooding inside the station the following year, according to the engineer.

An investigating magistrate in the southern port city of Marseille is now probing the power station for fraud and “endangering the lives of others”, the legal source said.

Other suspected violations include damage to the environment by leakage of toxic substances, obstructing checks by nuclear inspectors and workplace harassment of the engineer, who says he was sidelined after sounding the alarm.

France, which derives around 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear power, has been exploring a possible extension of the lifetime of its ageing stations, several of which have come up against their 40-year limit.

That includes Tricastin, built in 1980-81 — making it one of France’s oldest nuclear stations.

It is on a list of installations that the ASN agency said last year could be renovated to extend their lifespan.

Currently operations at 12 of France’s 56 nuclear reactors are shut down because of corrosion issues, EDF said last month.

In February, President Emmanuel Macron called for a “rebirth” of France’s nuclear industry, with 14 new plants, as part of efforts to move away from fossil fuels.

The launch of the Tricastin probe was evidence of the accusations’ “extreme gravity”, the whistleblower’s high-profile lawyers Vincent Brengarth and William Bourdon said in a statement to AFP.

Contacted by AFP, both EDF and ASN declined to comment.

Last November, however, ASN chief inspector Christophe Quintin told AFP that routine checks at Tricastin had not revealed any incidents that might have gone unreported.

Independent radioactivity research association CRIIRAD welcomed the investigation, saying it raised important issues such as nuclear safety and transparency on nuclear issues.

“The judiciary is sending a strong signal, but will it be able to get to the bottom of this?” asked the association’s spokesman, Roland Desbordes.

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Biden eyes climate progress as Brazil leader joins Americas summit

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US President Joe Biden speaks during opening ceremony of the the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles
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Joe Biden sought Thursday to step up action on climate at an Americas summit with hopes for at least small progress with Brazil, whose far-right leader will hold a potentially tense meeting with the US president.

Some two dozen leaders have descended on Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas, where Biden late Wednesday implored them to show that democracy can produce results.

“There is no reason why the Western Hemisphere shouldn’t be secure, prosperous and democratic, from Canada’s northernmost reaches to the southern tips of Chile,” he told a welcoming reception with pop performers at a downtown Los Angeles theater.

But as China makes rapid inroads in Latin America, long viewed by Washington as its turf, Biden has steered clear of big-dollar pledges and has instead sought cooperation in targeted areas.

The summit on Thursday will focus on climate, with Vice President Kamala Harris tasked with meeting leaders of Caribbean nations that are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

One outlier from the international chorus to battle climate change has been Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a champion of agribusiness who has horrified environmentalists who warn that further erosion of the Amazon rainforest will disrupt a vital natural sink for the planet’s carbon emissions.

Ahead of Biden’s first meeting with Bolsonaro on Thursday, the White House said Brazil, Colombia and Peru would join a US-backed initiative to explore ways to reduce Amazon deforestation motivated by commodities industries.

The White House also said that Brazil and four other nations were joining a renewable energy initiative launched at last year’s UN climate summit in Copenhagen.

In the pact, countries promise to work toward a goal of 70 percent renewables in their energy mix by 2030. 

Despite coming under criticism over the Amazon, Brazil — the sixth most populous nation — has one of least carbon-intensive economies for a major economy and already meets the goal on renewables, mostly through hydropower.

– The ‘Tropical Trump’ –

The meeting with Bolsonaro could be awkward due to more than climate. Bolsonaro was an ally of Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump and has appeared to follow the former president’s playbook by alleging that Brazil’s October elections are threatened by fraud.

On the eve of his trip, Bolsonaro went further by backing Trump’s claims of irregularities in the 2020 US election won by Biden. There has been no evidence of widespread fraud.

Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, said the president would not shy away from discussing the Brazilian election.

“I do anticipate that the president will discuss open, free, fair, transparent democratic elections,” Sullivan told reporters.

Bolsonaro has trailed in early polls against his likely challenger, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist icon who was jailed on controversial corruption charges.

A victory by Lula would mark a further swing to the left in Latin America. Colombia, one of the closest US allies, could see a historic shift on June 19 if there is a victory by leftist Gustavo Petro, who topped the first round of voting.

While promising to work with leaders across ideology, Biden has held firm against inviting the leftist leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela on the grounds that they are autocrats.

His stance led to a boycott of the summit by Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a crucial partner on addressing rising migration into the United States.

Harris started the week-long summit by announcing commitments of $1.9 billion by businesses in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in hopes of creating jobs and discouraging migration — an issue seized upon by Trump’s Republican Party.

Also at the summit, the Biden administration announced a plan to help train 500,000 health workers in Latin America and a $300 million project to improve food security, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupting grain exports.

Biden also announced what he called a new economic partnership for the Americas, although there were few concrete details and no promises of funding or greater market access.

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Sandberg exit unlikely to improve Facebook: whistleblower

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Frances Haugen's leaked documents suggested executives knew their platforms could fuel hate speech and damage the mental health of young people
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The departure of controversial Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg is unlikely to improve the troubled social media giant, whistleblower Frances Haugen told AFP.

Haugen, a former Facebook engineer who leaked internal documents last year suggesting the firm put profits before safety, pointed out that Sandberg’s replacement came from a team whose remit was to help the firm to expand.

The “growth team” was part of the problem and the decision showed the company was “not listening to the heart of the critiques”, she said.

Sandberg, the number two at Facebook parent Meta, shocked Silicon Valley last week by announcing she was stepping down after 14 years at the firm, steering its rise from niche social network to ad-tech juggernaut.

But she had increasingly become the public face of a firm beset by scandals over misinformation, data protection and even accusations of fuelling ethnic violence.

Haugen’s leaked documents suggested executives knew their platforms could fuel hate speech and damage the mental health of young people.

The revelations led to huge criticism of Sandberg and her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, whose business — renamed Meta in 2021 — also includes Instagram and WhatsApp.

– ‘Did she do enough?’ –

Haugen, speaking to AFP this week ahead of addressing a cybersecurity forum in Lille in northern France, said there was a “fundamental tension” about Sandberg’s role.

“Did she do enough to stand up to Mark, or to demand Mark be a better leader? I don’t think so.”

She praised Sandberg, though, for establishing a strategic response team in 2018 to combat efforts to misuse the network.

“Sheryl did set up the parts of the company that were actively concerned with the safety of people who live in fragile places like Ethiopia,” she said.

But she said it “doesn’t seem particularly promising” that Sandberg will be replaced by Javier Olivan, the head of Meta’s “growth team”.

In announcing Olivan’s promotion, Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook that he had a “strong track record of making our execution more efficient and rigorous”.

Haugen wished him luck in his new role but said the growth team embodied “many of the things that I consider problematic about Facebook”.

Much of Haugen’s criticism stemmed from a central accusation that Facebook had pursued growth and profit with no concern for the safety or wellbeing of its users.

The growth team was central to that effort.

“The fact that the person who got to replace Sheryl comes from that part of the organisation feels that they are not really listening to the heart of the critiques,” said Haugen.

Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

– Optimism on Musk –

Haugen has never fitted the stereotypical whistleblower image of a scrappy outsider — she has wealthy backers and a slick campaign that has seen her addressing parliaments around the world.

She told AFP in an interview last year she planned to start a youth movement to help empower young people to take charge of their online lives.

Aside from Facebook, she is sanguine about other recent developments in tech.

The saga of Elon Musk’s on-off takeover of Twitter, for example, has left many commentators questioning whether the billionaire magnate might do more harm than good to the social media firm.

But Haugen reckons he might just be on to something, saying she was “cautiously optimistic”.

“Part of why Facebook makes bad decisions is because it’s a publicly traded company,” she said.

“Elon Musk taking Twitter private provides an opportunity to go and do the house cleaning that Twitter needs.”

And she is heartened by a new European Union law — known as the Digital Services Act — that forces social media to regulate content.

She said it should break open the tech giants to independent scrutiny, which was a “really, really good deal”.

Overall, she said her revelations had made a positive impact — Facebook has doubled its spending on safety and staff working on safety issues say they have more space to operate.

“I’m incredibly heartened by how seriously leaders around the world have taken us,” she said.

“We have different conversations now about what social media should be.”

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Italy’s Draghi says EU should cushion energy inflation blow

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Draghi highlighted that inflation in the eurozone single currency area reached 8.1 percent in May
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Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi on Thursday suggested an EU-wide scheme to protect citizens from higher energy costs resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We must consider replicating some of the joint tools that have helped us recover swiftly from the pandemic,” Draghi told delegates gathered in Paris for a meeting of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

He highlighted that inflation in the eurozone single currency area reached 8.1 percent in May — much of it driven by higher prices for energy including oil and gas following Moscow’s assault on its neighbour.

“Rising inflation is not wholly the sign of overheating (in the economy), but largely the result of a series of supply shocks,” Draghi said.

The former European Central Bank chief said the SURE unemployment support scheme, agreed by EU nations in 2020 as the first pandemic wave was breaking over the continent, could serve as a model.

It provided up to 100 billion euros ($107 billion) across the bloc to buttress national budgets sapped by the sudden need to aid large numbers of people with measures like short-time work schemes.

SURE “provided cheap and stable loans to the EU member states so that they could save jobs and support incomes”, Draghi said.

“A similar instrument — this time targeting energy — could ensure vulnerable countries have more room to help their citizens at a time of crisis” as well as “shore up popular support for our joint sanctions” against Russia, he added.

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