Fears over France's nuclear reactors have been raised as the government orders ground water tests at its 58 power stations, after a uranium leak at one polluted local water supplies.
The safety lapse at a plant in Provence run by French nuclear giant Areva has raised questions over President Nicolas Sarkozy's drive to roll out reactors around the world – in Britain but also in states with less stringent safety norms.
"I don't want people to feel that we are hiding anything from them," said ecology minister Jean-Louis Borloo as he announced the blanket tests.
Residents in Bollène in the Vaucluse, southern France – a top tourist area – have been told not to drink water or eat fish from nearby rivers, after 74kg of liquid uranium was spilled on July 7 at the Tricastin nuclear plant.
Swimming and water sports were also banned along with irrigating crops with the contaminated water, which reached two rivers.
French authorities last week ordered the closure of a nuclear treatment facility at the plant, which also has a nuclear reactor, after liquid was spilled during its transfer from one container to another.
The site is run by Socatri, a subsidiary of Areva, whose president, Anne Lauvergeon, is due to visit.
Areva aims to dominate the design and construction of at least eight new power stations which are to be fast-tracked in England over the next decade.
According to Gordon Brown, they are essential to reduce Britain's dependency on fossil fuels, but environmentalists have already raised safety fears, saying the Areva reactor design is 'untried and untested'.
Ben Ayliffe, head of nuclear campaigns at Greenpeace, said: "Such unpredictable and nasty side effects are the risks you take with nuclear.
"We believe the leak in France resulted from human error.
"Liquid uranium was accidentally poured onto the ground. We're not talking about dishwater here. This is a dangerous radioactive material.
"The risk of accidents like this in the UK should be enough to make reasonable people baulk at the thought of having more nuclear power stations here."
Although ranked as only a level-one incident on a scale from zero to seven, Mr Borloo said he wanted government nuclear safety inspectors to look into the environmental conditions at all sites, in particular the state of the surrounding ground water.
"I'm told that everything is under control, but I want to be sure," Mr Borloo told Le Parisien newspaper.
French environmental group Sortir du nucléaire welcomed the move, but said that tests should be carried out by an independent body not linked to the industry or the French state – its main shareholder.
France has the world's second largest network of nuclear reactors after the United States and they generate more than 80 per cent of its electricity.
While the spill at Tricastin did not affect the reactor, Mr Borloo stressed that "there is no room for negligence" in nuclear energy.
France's IRSN nuclear safety institute said it had located four areas with abnormally high levels of uranium in the ground water and that this could not have been caused by the Tricastin leak alone.
This has led to suggestions that military nuclear waste buried nearby in an underground storage site from 1964 to 1976 may be to blame.
In 1998, a study by French nuclear body Cogema estimated that up to 900kg of uranium had leaked into underground water supplies from the site, and that another 1,700 kilogrammes were still buried there.
However, IRSN said the pollution "incident" had "nothing to do with this mound of waste" – located roughly a mile further south.
It has been declared all vegetables and crops irrigated just after the leak fit for consumption, but residents around Bollène, where the power station is located, said they feared for their health.
"We've been drinking water from this water table for 20 years," said Sylvie Eymard, who cultivates herbs and vegetables on a farm within sight of Tricastin's cooling towers. Most of her plants have died due to the water restrictions.
"We've done chemical tests before, but never thought of a radiological risk.
"I can't help thinking about the possible consequences of this pollution on my children", she told Le Parisien.
The municipality is supplying tanks of drinking water and local stores have sold out on mineral water, while some residents have stocked up on iodine pills – usually taken as protection against airborne radioactive particles.
"The local population is worried and no longer believes official figures", said André-Yves Becq, the deputy mayor. He said Socatri inspectors "suspiciously" told one family that dangerously high levels of contamination in its water supply were due to a "dirty measurement instrument".
France is fiercely proud of its nuclear prowess thanks to mainly state-owned energy giants Areva, Electricité de France and newly merged GDF Suez. The country has already embarked on the construction of a new generation of higher-yield EPR reactors.
In April, Mr Sarkozy hailed French nuclear technology as "one of the safest in the world' while on a trip to Tunisia – the latest in his nuclear sales tour of mainly Muslim states including Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, but also China.
"Without energy, you will not know growth. Without growth, you will not have development. You will have poverty, under-development and unemployment, and thus terrorism. Everything is linked", he claimed.