RHEIMS, France, June 5, 2007— -- Chances are you never thought those bubbles in your celebratory Champagne were radioactive. Pop open a bottle and the least thing you expect is a taste tainted by nuclear waste.
But the independent ACRO researchers, working with the environmentalist group Greenpeace, warn that this could become the case if current nuclear waste dumps in France's famous Champagne region are not properly managed.
Here in Rheims, home to many of the wine's most- revered brand names, tourists flock about burdened only by bags carrying distinctive labels like Veuve Clicquot or Krug or Ruinart. The danger implied by Greenpeace's warnings seems remote.
One tourist from Australia, Georgia Carter, had not heard of the problem and was unfazed when told.
"I came to see the region and sample a little champagne. Unless I hear about major warnings, I'm not going to worry about it," she said.
Carter can reasonably relax for the time being, as even Greenpeace concedes there is not yet a direct danger to the quality of the bubbly.
But Greenpeace still insists its warnings are genuine and must be taken seriously.
"It is a big problem, and it will be a problem in the future," said Riana Teuler, at Greenpeace's Dutch offices.
"It is in the beginning stages of leakage in the Champagne region. [The authorities] need to make sure [the waste] is not leaking. It should be above the ground and frequently checked. The problem is that it's underground and not really being measured," she said.
The current nuclear waste dump in Soulaine carries short-life waste. The site will continue receiving loads for the next 60 years, so it is still far from full.
But nuclear campaigner Frederic Marillier of Greenpeace France told how the radioactive element, tritium, has already been found in underground waters around the dump site and is also being discharged into the atmosphere.
"The fact is that this tritium is in the underground water proves that it's not a safe site," said Marillier. "So we feel that in the coming years it will get worse and worse as has happened in the other sites [in France]."
With one faulty dump already causing damage in the Champagne region -- in Soulaine -- another dump site is now planned for Bure. For this new depository, the most radioactive material in France is earmarked.
"This is only the beginning of the problem," nuclear campaigner for Greenpeace International, Shaun Burnie said in the group's press release.
"The bigger picture is that France has a nuclear waste crisis out of control that is threatening not only the environment and public health but also the economy of the Champagne region," he said.
And while there is still no direct threat to the quality of the wine, campaigners already fear the effects on the wine's reputation. Other local industries are likely to face the consequences sooner.
"In Normandy," where there's another, older dump site, "it is already the case that the local industries are becoming affected," said Marillier.
"But nobody really knows how it will turn out. It's a very long process," he said. "It's not very spectacular."