A Nuclear Sandwich in the Mediterranean

published on Sunday 15 June 2008

by Carmel Cacopardo

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 Last week, two nuclear powers stations in the EU were the subject of safety scares. On Tuesday 3 June at 9.30am local time, in the Dukovany nuclear plant in the Czech Republic, an employee accidentally turned off the coolant pipes and its four reactors were automatically switched off. On Wednesday 4 June in Krško, Slovenia, on the border with Croatia, a water leak from the coolant system of the nuclear plant occurred in the afternoon. The nuclear facility shut down.

These are the most recent of the nuclear accidents and incidents occurring in Europe.

Safety mechanisms are intended to identify and correct failures as soon as they occur. However, when safety mechanisms in nuclear plants fail, leading to a complete breakdown (what is known as a meltdown), issues of transboundary effects of such failure come into play. In view of the fact that we never know whether intended safety mechanisms will function or not, the siting of nuclear power plants will always lead to the assessing of impacts of transboundary effects in case of failure caused by faulty design, human error or natural causes (for example, an earthquake).

It is pertinent within this context to focus on the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that occurred in 1986, the effects of which were far-reaching.

The Chernobyl nuclear plant was located close to the border with Belarus. Some may assume that the effects of this disaster were limited to neighbouring Belarus and The Russian Federation in addition to Ukraine. This is not correct as radioactive contamination resulting from Chernobyl was detected in various other countries.

The report of the Chernobyl Forum entitled “Chernobyl’s Legacy: Health, Environmental and Socio-Economic Impacts and Recommendations to the Governments of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine”  limits itself to the areas surrounding the incident site within the confines of the then existent Soviet Union.

However, another report dated April 2006 commissioned by Green MEP Rebecca Harms entitled “The Other Report on Chernobyl (Torch)” is more detailed. This other report concludes that over half of Chernobyl’s fallout was deposited outside the confines of Ukraine/ Belarus/Russian Federation, that the fallout contaminated about 40 per cent of Europe’s surface area and that 30,000 to 60,000 excess deaths from cancer were predicted. Radioactive discharges were dispersed across many parts of Europe: former Yugoslavia, Sweden, Bulgaria, Norway, Rumania, Germany, Austria and Poland. 3.9 million square kilometres of European territory was affected, that is 40 per cent of the surface area of Europe.

Other parts of Europe were in receipt of low levels of contamination: Moldova, the European part of Turkey, Slovenia, Switzerland, Slovak Republic and the United Kingdom.

The Rebecca Harms report refers to restrictions still in place in the UK in 2006 on 374 farms covering 750 sq. km and 200,000 sheep, of high level Caesium-137 contamination in wild boar in Germany, as well as contamination of natural and near-natural environments in Sweden and Finland, and high level Caesium-137 contamination of wild game, wild mushrooms, berries and carnivore fish in lakes in Germany, Austria, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania and Poland.

There is practically no limit to the transboundary effect of a nuclear disaster. Once the disaster has occurred its effects are primarily dependent on the prevailing weather conditions.

On 22 May, Claudio Scajola, Italy’s Minister of Economic Development, announced plans that Italy would shift to nuclear energy. He stated: “By the end of this legislature we will put down the foundation stone for the construction in our country of a group of new-generation nuclear plants. An action plan to go back to nuclear power cannot be delayed anymore.” This contrasts heavily with and is in defiance of the decision taken in a referendum in Italy on 8 November 1987, which in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster called for a ban on nuclear reactors. The Italian government subsequently adopted the referendum decision as policy.

That is the position to Malta’s north.

Another scenario is developing to our south. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who rushed to Tripoli in July 2007 as soon as the Bulgarian nurses were released, signed a number of agreements one of which was a deal to construct a French nuclear reactor in Libya intended to produce potable water through desalination.

Nuclear energy is currently being considered by a number of governments due to it being carbon free. Those advocating it tend to ignore the problems of storage of nuclear waste. They also play down the catastrophic consequences of failures as a result of design flaws, human error or natural causes. They also ignore the limited supply of uranium. It is estimated that known supplies of uranium will not last more than another 40 years!

There have been too many near misses of operational failure of nuclear power stations. Those in Slovenia and the Czech Republic that occurred last week are only the most recent in the EU. Among other incidents reported last year, one in an earthquake zone in Japan stands out. I refer to the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Station in the Niigata Prefecture in Japan that was damaged in the July 2007 earthquake. Various other accidents go unreported and only come to light after a number of years. The Japan Times, for example, on 31 March 2007 reported on a number of such cases in Japan that occurred in the past 20 years!

Faced with these nuclear pressures from our neighbours, as an EU member Malta should invoke the provisions of the Espoo Convention to come to its rescue.

The Espoo Convention signed in February 1991 in the town of Espoo just outside Helsinki is entitled Convention on Environmental Impact Assessment in a Transboundary Context. It was concluded within the framework of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

In 1997 the Espoo Convention was incorporated into the EU environmental acquis in the form of amendments to the 1985 Environmental Impact Assessment Directive. Article 7 of the Directive now provides that, “Where a Member State is aware that a project is likely to have significant effects on the environment in another Member State, or where a Member State likely to be significantly affected so requests, the Member State in whose territory the project is intended to be carried out shall send to the affected Member State as soon as possible and not later than when informing its own public” detailed information on the project and its transboundary impact and information on the decision which is to be taken, “and shall give the other Member State a reasonable time in which to indicate whether it wishes to participate in the Environmental Impact Assessment Procedure”.

In our particular case this would oblige the Republic of Italy to make available to the Republic of Malta all available information and subsequently to facilitate Malta’s involvement in all the procedures leading to an EIA thereby ensuring that these are followed to the letter, without any short cuts.

With regard to the French nuclear presence on Libyan soil, the provisions of the Espoo Convention would not be applicable as Libya is not a signatory. In this case French economic interests may appear, at face value, to supersede environmental rhetoric. Both France and Libya should however be held to account – France within the EU framework and Libya in international fora. The inapplicability of the Espoo Convention to Libyan territory does not exonerate Libya or France from ensuring that they take all necessary steps to avoid transboundary impacts. This can be easily done by using alternative technologies.

Within this context there is quite a lot of environmental diplomacy that still needs seeing to with Paris, Tripoli, Rome and Brussels.

In the case of Rome, maybe the Italians would also consider the need for another referendum to tie Berlusconi’s hands more securely.

EU accession has given us the tools to use in order to avoid becoming a nuclear sandwich in the Mediterranean. We should not discard them.

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