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NUCLEAR POWER

Reader question: Did France really try to cover up the 1986 Chernobyl disaster?

On April 26, 1986, reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear plant - in Soviet-era Ukraine - exploded. A radioactive ‘cloud’ covered large parts of Europe, but did France really try to hide the danger from the population?

Reader question: Did France really try to cover up the 1986 Chernobyl disaster?
Archive image of the Chernobyl nuclear plant days after the explosion in reactor four (Photo by Vladimir Repik / AFP)

Question: When people in France are discussing the risks to nuclear safety because of the war in Ukraine, I keep hearing people say sarcastically ‘but of course radiation clouds stop at the French border’ – what are they talking about? I don’t get it?

The Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine was in the news in recent days, after invading Russian forces clashed with the country’s national guards protecting the decommissioned plant – which is still leaking radioactive material after the disaster 36 years ago.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster triggered the release of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere – to date the world’s largest known release of radioactivity into the environment. What became known as a ‘radioactive cloud’ travelled west over Europe. It passed over Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UK.

The French government of the time, headed by Jacques Chirac, was widely criticised for its handling of the crisis. While officials in Germany warned consumers not to eat fresh produce and distributed iodine pills, the government here took no special measures.

But the truth is, there was no need for France to take special measures, as Germany did. The government’s worst mistake was not to explain the situation fully to an understandably-worried population – an error it had made previously, and has made since.

An apparently apocryphal comment, attributed to the head of the Service central de protection contre les rayonnements ionisants at the time, that “The Chernobyl cloud has stopped at the French border,” has been frequently repeated and widely mocked as an example of the French attitude.

It also led to suggestions that France covered up the truth about the cloud and even concealed information about its effects.

In fact, most of France did escape relatively lightly: parts of the Vosges, the Jura, the Southern Alps and Corsica were the most affected as weather conditions at the time pushed the plume northwards.

In 2001, several hundred people, mainly in eastern France and Corsica, filed a lawsuit against the government after suffering thyroid issues, a classic symptom of radioactive contamination.

They claimed it was caused by the radiation from Chernobyl, and that the government had covered up the severity of the situation.

But, after a 10-year legal battle, a court dismissed the case and cleared nuclear scientist Pierre Pellerin – who was reported to have uttered that fateful ‘borders’ phrase – of charges that he covered up the true effects of the cloud.

And a 2000 report titled Birth of a myth: the Chernobyl fallout in France, by the International Nuclear Information System – part of the International Atomic Energy Agency – found that France’s official position at the time was accurate and proportional to the relatively low danger.

“In France the average dose due to the Chernobyl accident represented less than 10 percent of the yearly dose produced by natural radioactivity, so French authorities were right not to be alarmed,” an abstract of the report said. 

“In Germany the radioactive fallout was 10 times higher than in France and German authorities expected a far more intense contamination. As a consequence, health measures taken in Germany were nothing like those taken in France; that difference made journalists say that the radioactive contamination had stopped at the Franco-German border.”

As we can see from the fact that this line is still circulating, however, it did cause long-lasting damage to trust in the French authorities.

Last week saw reports of people buying iodine tablets in response to the worrying news from Ukraine, apparently unconvinced that the government would distribute these if it became necessary.

READ ALSO What to do in case of a nuclear alert in France

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DRIVING

Reader question: Do I have to swap my driving licence in France?

If you're living in France you may eventually need to swap your driving licence for a French one - but how long you have to make the swap and exactly how you do it depends on where your licence was issued. Here's the low-down.

Reader question: Do I have to swap my driving licence in France?

First things first, how long are you staying in France?

Holiday driving

If you’re just in France for a short period, such as for a holiday, you will usually be able to drive a vehicle using your usual driving licence.

You may also need an International Driving Permit – it’s basically a translation of a domestic driving licence that allows the holder to drive a private motor vehicle in any country or jurisdiction that recognises the document.

Check with driving authorities in your home country to see if you need one to drive in France. 

Drivers with European licences and UK and NI licence-holders are exempt from the International Driving Permit requirement.

French resident

So far, so simple. It starts to get a bit trickier if you plan to move to France for a longer period. Then, everything depends on the country in which your driving licence was issued (and not your nationality, in this case it’s all about where the licence was issued).

READ ALSO Driving in France: Understanding the new French traffic laws

If you hold a licence from an EU / EEA country

These are relatively straightforward. Because of freedom of movement rules within the EU full driving licences from Member States are valid in France. EEA country licences have the same status.

Holders of an EU/EEA driver’s licence are not required to exchange their foreign licence for a French one as long as they have not picked up any points on their licence through committing traffic offences such as speeding.

READ ALSO Driving in France: What is télépéage and how does it work?

If you move to France permanently, you may, however, change your licence for a French one, by following this procedure.

What if you’re from the UK?

For a while, official advice left many in limbo and others stranded without a licence altogether

But – Good News! – British and French authorities announced in June 2021 that a reciprocal agreement had been reached that allows people who live in France to drive on a UK or NI licence that was issued before January 1st, 2021 to continue using them.

It essentially created a phased system where people only need to exchange when their photocard or actual licence runs out, whichever comes first – although you apply to make the exchange once you get within six months of the expiry date.

If you commit certain traffic offences or if your licence is lost or stolen you may need to exchange earlier.

Anyone whose licence was issued after January 1st, 2021, will need to exchange it for a French one within one year of moving to France. 

You can find full details on the rules and how to do the exchange HERE

Non-European licences

Anyone who holds a non-European driving licence may drive in France for a year after their legal residence in France is confirmed on their original licence. After that, if they stay in France any longer, they should apply for a French driving licence.

This is where things get a little tricky. If the state that issued the non-European licence has signed a bilateral agreement with France, the exchange is relatively straightforward. It involves applying to the French driving licence agency ANTS and providing them with all the necessary information.

READ ALSO Grace period for fines over France’s new law on winter tyres

If, however, the driver passed their test in a country that does not have such an agreement in place, then they will have to take a French driving test before they can legally continue driving in France.

You can find the online portal to make the swap here.

US and Canadian licences

If you have an American or Canadian licence things are even more complicated, because it depends on the state that your licence was issued in. 

The following US States have licence swap agreements with France.

  • Delaware*,  Maryland*, Ohio*, Pennsylvania**, Virginia*, South Carolina, Massachusetts,  New Hampshire, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin*, Arkansas*, Oklahoma*, Texas*, Colorado*, Florida**, Connecticut**

* Swap for Permis B licences in France,
** Swap for Permis A and/or B licences in France
see below for what this means

Drivers with licences from States not listed above cannot simply swap their licence, instead they have to take a French driving test within a year of moving to France, or stop driving.

The following Canadian provinces have licence swap agreements with France:

  • Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland et Labrador, Québec, Manitoba, Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia

Only New Brunswick offers a straight like-for-like swap. All the others swap full Canadian licences for French B permits. Drivers with licences issued from other provinces will have to pass a French driving test before they can hold a French driving licence.

Permis A, Permis B

The Permis A French licence is basically for motorbikes. Holders can ride two- or three-wheeled vehicles, with or without a sidecar.

The Permis B French driving licence allows holders to drive a vehicle with a maximum weight of 3.5 tonnes, which seats no more than nine people. This includes standard passenger cars, people carriers and minibuses.

READ ALSO What to do if you are hit by an uninsured driver in France?

What else you need to know

First things first. Unlike numerous other nations, including the UK, having points on your licence in France is a good thing. 

Full, ‘clean’ French licences have 12 points, with motorists losing points if they are guilty of motoring offences.

Anyone who has been driving for more than three years, and who exchanges a full, clean licence in France will, therefore, receive a French licence with 12 points. 

READ ALSO COMPARE: Which countries in Europe have the strictest drink-drive limits?

Provisional French licences – issued to motorists who passed their tests within the past three years – are loaded with six points, rising to the full 12 after three years of ‘clean’ driving here.

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