In 1933 nuclear physicist Marie Curie had outgrown her lab in the Latin Quarter in central Paris. To give her the space needed for the messy task of extracting radioactive elements such as radium from truckloads of ore, the University of Paris built a research center in Arcueil, a village south of the city. Today it’s grown into a crowded working-class suburb. And the dilapidated lab, set in an overgrown garden near a 17th century aqueduct, is sometimes called Chernobyl on the Seine.
No major accidents occurred at the lab, which closed in 1978. But it’s brimming with radio activity that will be a health threat for millennia, and France’s nuclear watchdog has barred access to anyone not wearing protective clothing.
The lab is surrounded by a concrete wall topped by barbed wire and surveillance cameras. Monitors constantly assess radiation, and local officials regularly test the river. “We’re proof that France has a serious nuclear waste problem,” says Arcueil Mayor Christian Métairie. “Our situation raises questions about whether the country is really equipped to handle it.”
Nuclear power accounts for almost three-fourths of France’s electricity, vs. a fifth in the U.S. There’s no lasting solution for the most dangerous refuse from the country’s 906 nuclear waste sites, including some of what’s in Arcueil. Low-level material is to be sent to an aboveground storage site in northe