By Muriel Boselli
PARIS (Reuters) - French nuclear firm Areva has detected a uranium leak that could date back several years at a factory it operates in southeastern France, safety authorities said on Friday.
The news came just a day after the government ordered safety tests in all the country's 19 nuclear power plants following another leak at an Areva installation earlier this month.
However, Energy and Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo moved to reassure the public over the latest incident.
"We mustn't over-exaggerate," he told reporters, saying there were 115 such "little anomalies" in France's nuclear industry each year. "This is something which poses no environmental or health risk," he said.
The nuclear watchdog of Europe's biggest atomic energy nation said it had dispatched a team of experts to check the site in Romans-sur-Isere, but did not give any indication about the size of the leak, which was revealed on Thursday.
Areva, a state-controlled company which makes nuclear reactors and deals with uranium, said the leak came from a buried pipe transporting liquid uranium and that the crack in the tubing was "several years old."
"The defective pipe was shut by our teams," Areva said.
The company has asked the ASN to classify the event at level one of the International Nuclear Event Scale, which is used to measure the potential danger of incidents at nuclear sites.
The scale has seven levels, the lowest of which is zero.
The ASN said Areva would start cleaning the impacted zone later on Friday, adding that the pipes did not appear to meet safety regulations.
The ASN criticized Areva for the way it handled the previous leak at Tricastin, which was also classified as a level one event, saying it delayed communication of the problem and had unsatisfactory security measures in place.
Areva has since named a new manager for the Tricastin plant who has been told to review procedures at the site.
The latest incident is an embarrassment for Areva which is at the forefront of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's efforts to sell home-grown nuclear energy technology to the world.
The problems could also cast new doubts on France's recent decision to build a second new-generation European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) by 2017, bringing to 60 the number of nuclear reactors in France.
(Additional reporting by Benjamin Mallet; editing by Crispian Balmer and Elizabeth Piper)