Mystery of the French Nuclear Drones

November 10, 2014

The Independent:

An epidemic of mysterious – and potentially disturbing – drone flights over French nuclear power stations remains unexplained despite the recent arrests of three young model aircraft enthusiasts in central France.

The illegal flights by the tiny, pilotless helicopters, mostly at night, were initially dismissed as a nuisance. But a recent spate of five co-ordinated “visits” in one evening to nuclear reactors hundreds of miles apart has now placed the French government on high alert.

A campaign of harassment by anti-nuclear campaigners is considered the most likely explanation. Surveillance flights by a terrorist group testing the security of France’s 19 nuclear sites have not been ruled out. Then, last Wednesday, three people, two men aged 24 and 31 and a woman of 21, were arrested close to a power station at Belleville-sur-Loire in Cher. Police said the three were about to launch a relatively simple drone – a type sold on the internet for around €100 (£78).

They face possible charges but are not suspected of being responsible for the score of intrusions by much more elaborate drones in the restricted airspace over 13 nuclear power stations since early October. “They appear to be model aircraft enthusiasts,” a source in the investigation told the newspaper Le Parisien. “The machine they were using was sophisticated enough but not military or professional. It was a toy. Whether they were doing it for fun or they had some political motive is not yet clear.”

The Guardian:

The three, who include a locksmith and student couple, now face possible one-year prison sentences and €75,000 fines.

“These people do not have any link with the other flights done in the last weeks,” Yannick Rousselet, Greenpeace France’s nuclear campaigner told the Guardian. “It looks like they wanted to play with their drones close to the plant, which was not a good choice.”

The French nuclear operator EDF admits 13 drone incidents in the last month, but the Guardian has learned that other nuclear facilities may have also been targeted for surveillance by the drones.

Sources say that drones also overflew sites including an Areva spent fuel reprocessing plant in Flamanville on the Cotentin peninsula on 27 October and nuclear research centres in Saclay, south of Paris, and Cadarache, in Bouche-du-Rhone.


From Oct. 5 to Nov. 2, guards at 13 nuclear plants, including some operated by the French electricity giant EDF, heard the buzzing of drones that the authorities have labeled an “organized provocation” aimed at “disrupting the surveillance chain and protection of these sites.” Officials said that the drones were not military, but rather civilian or commercial, and that they could be used to take photographs or record video of the plants.

Adding to the mystery, Ségolène Royal, the environment minister, has said that she does not have any leads on who was behind the flights. While she said she would not let anyone undermine France’s reputation for security at its nuclear plants, she added that the threat posed by the drone flights should neither be minimized nor exaggerated.

France has 19 nuclear plants and 58 reactors that supply nearly 75 percent of its electricity.

The newspaper Le Figaro, citing an anonymous government official, has reported that police officers are under orders to shoot down any aircraft that could threaten the plants.



7 Responses to “Mystery of the French Nuclear Drones”

  1. I’ve got a Google alert out for news about this.

    Some have been quick to blame Greenpeace, but with no evidence whatsoever and Greenpeace statements to the contrary, I very much doubt it’s due to them.

    I’ve even heard one theory that the French secret services themselves are to blame, which is right out there in Whacky Land.

    We’ll find out one day, but until then it’s all conjecture.

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    There is nothing that you can think of that would really be out in Whacky Land here. The WashPost just reported that “somebody” is flying drones into stadiums at NFL and college football games during games.

    Anyone who has ever read the book or seen the film “Black Sunday” will immediately remember that it was about some terrorists flying a hijacked Goodyear blimp down inside the Super Bowl during the game and detonating a large fragmentation bomb under the gondola, killing several tens of thousands of spectators (including the POTUS).

    Those of us who have ever had to worry about “security” have said OMIGOD to the thought of cheap, easy to fly drones. You can access Youtube videos of drones with attached explosives being flown into buildings or cars through open windows and detonated, others with submachine guns hung below and shown “strafing” targets at point blank range. The videos we have seen of “smart bombs” flying down smokestacks in Iraq can be duplicated in a smaller scale by anyone with a few hundred $$$ and minimal knowledge.

    My first thought on seeing those videos was that it would be easy to fly one over the White House fence while the POTUS was making a speech on the south lawn, guide it right into his face, and detonate any attached explosives. A drone can carry enough to do the job. My second thought was I hoped that the Secret Service had started training folks to shoot skeet and posts them whenever the POTUS is outside. The White House has snipers and AA missiles on the roof, but they can’t deal with these quadcopter drones, and if the president is outside anywhere at any time, he is vulnerable and needs to be protected.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about Greenpeace or other environmental groups flying around nuclear plants. If they are doing it, it’s likely just publicity seeking. And no drone can carry enough explosives to penetrate a reactor’s containment, so direct radioactive release is unlikely. They ARE able to carry enough to damage emergency generators, transformer yards, etc., and cause feedback that does wreak much havoc—-a la flooded out emergency generators at Fukushima. I would worry about terrorists attempting something like that, or perhaps attacking other infrastructure that would cause cascading effects.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      PS For anyone who wants to see a potential “future” drone. This clip is 2-1/2 years old, and has had nearly 25 million hits in that time. Would anyone want to bet that not a single one of the viewers was a “bad guy”?

      Although it looks real, I think a lot of this clip is staged—-someone is pushing a button to make those big explosions, and I suspect the SMG is firing blanks and movie special effects squibs are being used to simulate the dirt kicked up by the rounds impacting. A lot of time spent editing and maybe some CGI as well. This FPS Russia show has some big $$$$ backers, but I can’t believe he blew $2K+ worth of stuff up in the car—-that’s just good editing.

      • Andy Lee Robinson Says:

        As a multicopter owner, the unwarranted alarmism and extrapolation alarms me.

        That video has very bad CGI compositing and sound effects – the drone doesn’t interact with the environment and doesn’t sound or behave at all convincingly – with a weight of about 15kg, the propwash would be substantial.

        They are so noisy that they can be heard half a mile away, so they are not going to be able to sneak up on anything very easily.

        They are good for surveillance from a distance, or inpecting buildings with knowledge of their use, not stealth, and they cannot carry much weight for any distance. Big multicopters are expensive and out of reach for the vast majority of hobbyists.

        However, they could be militarily useful in a swarm of hundreds or thousands on an anticipated one-way trip with a kilo of payload, but that would require a military budget.

        • dumboldguy Says:

          All true (almost). but you don’t have to have an expensive, noisy, gas-powered, made of metal machine for a one-way trip. I bought a small mostly plastic electric quadcopter this summer that fits on a dinner plate with room to spare. With controller and extra rechargeable battery it cost under $50 and makes so little noise someone could fly it into the back of your head and you wouldn’t know it was there until it hit you. The vendor had them in several sizes, the biggest having 4 slightly larger than dinner plate sized rotors and a video camera for around $150. You couldn’t hear it until it was within 25-30 feet, and it had a high enough power to weight ratio to go straight up like it was shot out of a mortar tube. It could be adapted to carry a transmitter for the camera (if you couldn’t go line of sight), a block of C-4, and a cell phone detonator. A mini-IED very much like our troops face in the Sand Box. If you wanted to attack our electrical infrastructure, you could fly a fleet of them trailing copper wires into transmission lines.

          I too worry about the “unwarranted alarmism and “extrapolation”, but it’s not all fantasy. A 2 or 3 hundred yard suicide flight carrying a couple of pounds doesn’t require much “machine”, and I’m sure that some whacko terrorists have thought of it. As I said, I hope they’ve got some good wing shooters around the President.

  3. It should be rather easy to monitor control frequencies and pinpoint the locatons of those behind the drones. I’m surprised nobody has thought of that already.

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