Rescue medics land by helicopter in the nuclear site of Marcoule, France, Sept. 12, 2011. (Claude Paris/AP)
The blast at the facility, which recycles plutonium from nuclear weapons to make fuel to provide electricity, was caused by a "fire near a furnace in the Centraco radioactive waste storage site," the BBC reported.
The facility's owner, French national electricity provider EDF, described the explosion as "an industrial accident, not a nuclear accident."
"The fire caused by the explosion was under control," an EDF spokesman told the BBC. The fire occurred at approximately 11:45 a.m. local time.
The French Atomic Energy Commission said Monday that it had detected radiation leaks as a result of the blast.
Officials with the UN atomic energy agency said that they are consulting with their French counterparts "to learn more about the nature of the explosion," the BBC report said.
France is a strong supporter of nuclear power, heralding the comparatively safe record of the technology in civilian uses. By contrast, Germany and Switzerland have decided in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan last spring to phase out nuclear power in their countries out of safety concerns.French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made a point of championing nuclear power plants as an important export for the French economy.
Some critics have said that French boosters of nuclear power have downplayed more serious safety issues. "The French nuclear programme does not have a stellar record of transparency," the BBC's environmental correspondent Richard Black wrote. "In environmental circles, particular opprobrium is reserved for officials who in 1986 claimed the Chernobyl accident would have no impact on France--a statement lampooned as indicating officials believed radioactive fallout observed national boundaries."
The Marcoule nuclear facility, built in 1956, is one of the oldest in Europe, Black wrote.