Three arrests fail to staunch mystery of drones flying over French nuclear plants

Aerial view of Cattenom nuclear power plant, one of the French plants targeted by unknown drones

, Brussels

Three people have been arrested with drones near a nuclear power plant in the Cher region south of Paris, as sources told the Guardian that the true number of French nuclear facilities being targeted may have been underplayed.

The three twentysomethings, detained near Belleville-sur-Loire plant on Wednesday night with two drones, are thought to be model plane enthusiasts and unconnected to the recent spate of drones spotted over nuclear reactors in recent weeks by mystery operators.

Blueberry Radio, a local station, reported that they had inadvertently strayed into a plant security zone during a post-birthday trip to film a remote-controlled boat on a lake.

The three, who include a locksmith and student couple, now face possible one-year prison sentences and €75,000 fines.

“These people do not have any link with the other flights done in the last weeks,” Yannick Rousselet, Greenpeace France’s nuclear campaigner told the Guardian. “It looks like they wanted to play with their drones close to the plant, which was not a good choice.”

The French nuclear operator EDF admits 13 drone incidents in the last month, but the Guardian has learned that other nuclear facilities may have also been targeted for surveillance by the drones.

Sources say that drones also overflew sites including an Areva spent fuel reprocessing plant in Flamanville on the Cotentin peninsula on 27 October and nuclear research centres in Saclay, south of Paris, and Cadarache, in Bouche-du-Rhone.

“I think there have been more than 13 drone flights,” said Yves Marignac, the director of World Information Service Energy-Paris, and an advisor to France’s nuclear safety authority and environment ministry.

“There are also reports of flights in Saclay, south of Paris and other facilities. Greenpeace have been saying for days that EDF is not the only nuclear operator affected by these flights and this has not been denied by other operators or by the government. So this is not strictly speaking a targeting of EDF sites.”

EDF maintains that its plants are immune to “external stresses” and the French interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve has said that measures to “neutralise” the drones were in place. Le Figaro has reported that police officers have been given orders to shoot down any aircraft that could threaten the plants.

But Rousselet, who lives close to the Flamanville plant, said that two army helicopters failed to intercept drones there on 27 October. “They were efficient and high speed helicopters,” he said. “They tried to follow the drones, but lost them.”

“Immediately after Cazeneuve’s statement, there were two overflights and the day after that, there were seven,” he added. “That means there is some kind of provocation to the French government taking place.”

In the aftermath of the first mysterious drone flights, some suspicion fell on Greenpeace, despite their denials, as the group has previously entered French nuclear plants to expose what they say are ongoing security failings.

The group used drones earlier this year to film illegal coal mining in China and usually trumpets such activities. The Guardian has learned that Greenpeace activists flew a drone over the Sellafield nuclear plant after 11 September 2001, which the group has never publicly admitted.

But that action was launched in the context of a bid to have the High Court overturn a government decision to proceed with the licensing of a Plutonium Mox plant in Sellafield, and photos taken in the operation were never put online to avoid revealing sensitive information to groups with malicious intent.

Few experts believe that Greenpeace has the capacity or motive to engage in a campaign as sophisticated, sustained and technically-complex as the one unfolding in France, involving up to four drone missions aimed at different sites at the same time.

Marignac said that he believed there were three possible culprits.

“One is that anti-nuclear people have formed an underground group although the operation seems to involve too much capacity for a really secret group,” he said. “The second option is a group like Anonymous or an anti-government group, trying to defy the government and show that there are breaches in security.”

“The third and most worrying possibility is that it is a malevolent and potentially terrorist group really challenging the government, saying ‘These are the means we have.’”

He declined to speculate on whether lax security exposure, blackmail, warnings or reconnaissance were the most likely motives, but noted that many of the sites surveilled contained spent fuel pools and that drones were particularly useful for acquiring “precise on-site information”.

The French environment minister Segolene Royal recently admitted that she did not “have any lead” on who was behind the drone operations.

Rousselet said that in the absence of laser-based weaponry, the French government lacked a technological solution to the problem and so had no option but to find the culprits quickly.

“We have direct and indirect contacts with the security services and my sense is that it looks like there’s some kind of panic developing as they don’t have any idea of who might be responsible,” he said.

A spokesperson for the European Commission said that it was “too early to determine the implications the drone events might have for the security of nuclear power plants in Europe.”

“However, given the nature of the installations concerned and, notably their relevance to energy supplies in Europe, the European Commission will follow closely any developments,” she added.

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