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Explosion rocks French nuclear facility

The explosion at the Marcoule nuclear plant in southern France, which has killed at least one person, was caused by a fire in a storage area for radioactive waste.

A nuclear plant in Marcoule in southern France suffered an explosion earlier today.

According to France's Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), the explosion at the plant occurred in a furnace used for melting radioactive scrap metal. Earlier reports from the BBC suggested the fire occurred in a storage space for radioactive waste. In a statement on the matter, France's nuclear safety regulator, the French Safety Authority (ASN), said that one worker died and that four other people were injured, including one person who "suffered deep burns."

Local news site Le Midi Libre was first to report on the story.

The Marcoule plant is a major site for nuclear activities. According to the BBC, it doesn't have any reactors, but does produce mixed oxide fuel (MOX) by recycling the plutonium found in nuclear weaponry. The plant also is used to create tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, the CBC says.

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Earlier this morning, there was some fear that a radioactive leak could occur at the Marcoule site. However, according to the CEA, the fire occurred "on the edge of the center" of the facility, and was brought under control. Measurements of radioactivity suggest that there has been no leakage outside the facility.

In an e-mailed statement to CNET, Gill Tudor, a spokesperson for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that the organization "is aware of an incident at the Marcoule facility, and its Incident and Emergency Centre (IEC) has been activated." Tudor said that the IEC, which handles the IAEA's response to nuclear or radiological incidents, is currently working with French authorities to seek further information.

The fire in the Marcoule facility is likely to reinforce concerns about nuclear power, following the Fukushima incident earlier this year. Following a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and ensuing tsunami, Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant became the focus of the global debate over the viability of nuclear power. In that incident, several reactors started to overheat, and workers exposed to dangerous levels of radiation helped to prevent a more far-reaching catastrophe.

In April, the crisis at Fukushima hit a near-record level, when the severity of the disaster was pushed from a 5 to 7, the highest rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). The 1986 Chernobyl disaster was also a 7 on the INES.

The Fukushima crisis spurred countries around the world, France included, to reassess their preparedness for a similar problem with their own nuclear plants. Over the last several months, France has engaged in testing of its plants to determine whether they are safe from potential disasters.

Exactly how the Marcoule fire will affect France's attitudes towards nuclear plants remains to be seen. According to information from the World Nuclear Association, an organization representing people who work in the nuclear profession, 75 percent of France's electricity is powered by nuclear energy. The country is also the "world's largest net exporter of electricity," thanks to its affinity for nuclear energy.

However, it appears the event is now over. In its statement, the ASN said that the trouble at the Marcoule facility is "considered as closed," adding that none of the injured people face radiological contamination.

Philippe Leroy of ZDNet France and Martin LaMonica of CNET contributed to this report. The story was updated throughout the morning with new details.