TOULOUSE, Oct 20: Thousands of anti-nuclear protesters demonstrated across France on Saturday amid heightened fears of guerilla attacks on the country’s 19 nuclear plants after last month’s attacks on the United States.

Police said some 2,500 protesters marched through the southern city of Toulouse, chanting anti-nuclear slogans and brandishing banners demanding the abolition of France’s highly- developed nuclear power and defence industries.

“The fact that we are several thousand in the streets of Toulouse, and elsewhere in France, proves that the French people are truly frightened of nuclear energy,” said Andre Crouzet, head of the “Let’s Get Out of the Nuclear Age” Association.

Activists pointed to the September explosion at a Toulouse petrochemicals plant, which killed 29 people and injured thousands, as an example of how easily accidents can happen.

Another 3,000 massed in Lyon in the southeast, while slightly smaller protests were under way at Colmar in the northeast, Lille in the north and Nantes in the southwest.

Green Party head Dominique Voynet said in Lyon, “We are not condemned for life eternal to be the most nuclearised country in the world, the country which exports low-price electricity to its neighbours while keeping the nuclear waste.”

France’s 19 nuclear plants produce 76 percent of national electricity, the highest proportion of any country. Nuclear power produces just over a third of European Union electricity.

Joining demonstrators in Lille, Noel Mamere — currently the front-runner Green candidate for France’s April presidential elections — called on the government to reduce nuclear power, pointing to German plans to phase out nuclear energy by the early 2020s. Belgium and Sweden have also opted to get rid of nuclear power stations, largely on environmental grounds.

TIGHTER SECURITY AT NUCLEAR PLANTS: While opponents evoke the risk of deadly explosions like that at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union in 1986, which exposed five million Europeans to radiation, supporters say nuclear plants do not produce carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas targeted by the 1997 Kyoto climate change deal.

On Friday, France said it had deployed ground-to-air missiles near a nuclear waste reprocessing plant at La Hague in northern France as a precaution following the hijack attacks on US landmarks.

France has boosted security around all its nuclear plants, aware that a guerrilla attack on a nuclear power station could cause devastating and widespread damage with little effort.

While Paris had not been informed of any particular threat, Defence Minister Alain Richard said this week France was prepared to use warplanes to shoot down hijacked planes. Putting missile batteries in place was a complementary measure, he said.

Earlier this month, anti-nuclear protesters met rail shipments of waste from German nuclear plants to the La Hague reprocessing site — the first atomic waste to arrive from Germany since the attacks on New York and Washington.

Some 50 anti-nuclear campaigners gathered near Strasbourg, saying it was irresponsible to transport nuclear waste at a time of increased risk of guerrilla attacks.—Reuters