Risk and use of nuclear energy

 

published Saturday April 16, 2011

 

The Fukushima nuc­lear disaster occur­red as a result of the tsunami. The earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale did not cause any direct damage to the nuclear installation.

The Fukushima nuclear reactor was (according to various reports) designed after taking into consideration the frequency and strength of earthquakes and tsunamis in the region. The strength of the earthquake and the impacts of the tsunami were substantially more than what was taken into consideration at the drawing board. The point at issue is whether, in view of the possible (and eventual) impacts resulting from a failure of the reactor’s cooling systems, the risk taken as a result of the design assumptions was justified.

After the Fukushima happenings, German Chancellor Angela Merkel changed her opinion on nuclear energy turning around 180 degrees in the space of a few months.

The European Commissioner for Energy, Günther Oettinger, former CDU Minister President of the German land of Baden-Württemberg, stated in an interview with Der Spiegel International that “Fukushima has made me start to doubt”.  He added: “when Chernobyl happened, we in the west were comforted by the fact that it was the result of outdated Soviet technology and human error. But I have nothing but respect for Japan’s abilities when it comes to industry and technology. That’s why Fukushima has been such a turning point for me. It has made me start to doubt. If the Japanese cannot master this technology, then nuclear energy conceals risks I didn’t see before.”

That says it all. The Fukushima nuclear incident is the direct result of the “risk society”, which acts on the basis of the probability of a particular event happening.

Notwithstanding advances in technology and human knowledge, there will always be an unresolved element of risk when adopting technological solutions to cater for human needs. The risk can be reduced but it will never be eliminated. As Dr Oettinger himself states, at the end of the day, in the case of a nuclear power plant, faced with the residual risk, “either you accept this residual risk or you shut down”.

To date, various governments took the risk. After Fukushima, a number are coming to their senses and are adopting the option to shut down. After the recent thrashing at the polls, Chancellor Merkel’s CDU too has changed course and has reluctantly started moving towards adopting a “green” nuclear policy!

There have been four major nuclear disasters since the late 1950s. The first took place in Windscale UK in 1957; the second at Harrisburg US (Three Mile Island) in 1979; the third occurred at Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986 and Fukushima was the fourth.

In addition to the above, there have been a countless number of other “small” incidents and a number of near misses. In France alone there are about 700 minor incidents every year, most of which go unreported.

Kenzaburo Oe is a Japanese Nobel Laureate having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. In an essay published in the New Yorker on March 28, entitled Tokyo Postcard. History Repeats, he states that the use of nuclear energy in Japan is a betrayal of the Hiroshima victims.

He says: “Like earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural calamities, the experience of Hiroshima should be etched into human memory: it was even more dramatic a catastrophe than those natural disasters precisely because it was man-made. To repeat the error by exhibiting, through the construction of nuclear reactors, the same disrespect for human life is the worst possible betrayal of the memory of Hiroshima’s victims.”

Nuclear technology disrespects life as it has been shown time and again not only to be unsafe to use but also that it places whole regions and eco-systems at risk.

While, later this month, the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster will be commemorated it is pertinent to ask whether any lessons have been learnt. Chernobyl was considered as being an exception easily explained by the then Soviet Union’s state of technological development. Fuku­shima is a different kettle of fish: Japanese precision and technological knowledge is second to none.

The question, however, remains that, at the end of the day, some event that has not been given sufficient weight in design considerations happens. Be it the earthquake’s strength, a tsunami’s force or the frequency of adverse weather conditions. Engineering ethics permit this as it is accepted practice that one cannot design for all eventualities.

This is the risk society that plays games with our lives. The risk society does not consider life as being sufficiently worthy of protection. It only weighs probabilities and projects these into costs.

In this scheme of things life is worthless, hence, the validity of the observation of Kenzaburo Oe that the use of nuclear energy disrespects human life and is possibly its worst betrayal.

Nuclear energy? No thanks!

Nuclear myth and Malta’s neighbours

 

 

 

published on Saturday March 26, 2011

 

April 26 marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuc­lear disaster, which affected 40 per cent of European territory.

Sicilians (but not the Maltese) were then advised on precautions to be observed in order to avoid the effects of airborne radioactive contamination on agricultural produce. In the UK, until very recently, a number of farms were still under observation after having been contaminated through airborne radioactive caesium in 1986. Wild boar hunted in Germany’s forests cannot be consumed. Its food-chain is still contaminated with radioactive caesium, which was dispersed all over Europe as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.

The Fukushima disaster has occurred in efficient and safety-conscious Japan.

Nature has taken over, confirming its supremacy over the risk society; confirming that even the smallest risk is unacceptable in nuclear projects as this exposes nations, ecosystems, economies and whole regions to large-scale disasters.

The myth that nuclear technology is safe has been shattered once more at Fukushima.

In addition to the disasters at Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986), there were also a number of near misses such as that on June 4, 2008 in Krško on the Slovenia/Croatia border. In Krško, leaking coolant water was minutes away from causing a meltdown of the nuclear installation. The leakages of coolant water from nuclear plants in the Tricastin region in France in July 2008 are also of particular significance.

Malta is faced with plans by Italy, Libya, Tunisia and others to generate nuclear energy.

Libya has agreed with France to be provided with a nuclear plant along its coast to carry out seawater desalination. Fortunately, this agreement has so far not materialised. One shudders just thinking on the possibilities which access to nuclear technology in the civil war on Libyan soil could lead to.

The Berlusconi government, ignoring the result of a 1987 Italian referendum, has embarked on a nuclear programme that could lead to the construction and operation of a number of nuclear installations on Italian soil. One of these will be sited in Sicily.

The locality of Palma di Montechiaro has been mentioned as the preferred site although an area near Ragusa is also under consideration. Both Palma di Montechiaro and Ragusa are situated along Sicily’s southern coast and are too close to Malta for comfort. A serious accident there could have an immediate effect on Malta. Moreover, this is the area which was most affected by a 1693 earthquake that caused considerable damage in both Ragusa and Malta.

This contrasts with the declaration last week by Abdelkater Zitouni, leader of Tunisie Verte, the Tunisian Green party, who has called on Tunisia’s transitional government to abandon the 2020 project of a nuclear plant in Tunisia.

What is the Maltese government doing on the matter?

There is no information in the public domain except an article published in Il Sole 24 Ore on July 26, 2008 authored by Federico Rendina and entitled Il Governo Rilancia Sull’Atomo. In a kite-flying exercise during an official visit to Rome by a Maltese delegation, Mr Rendina speculated on the possibilities of placing nuclear reactors for Italy’s use on territories just outside Italian jurisdiction. Malta, Montenegro and Albania were mentioned in this respect. It was unfortunate that the Maltese government only spoke up after being prodded by the Greens in Malta. It had then stated that no discussions on the matter had taken place with the Italian government.

On behalf of the Greens in Malta, since 2008 I have repeatedly insisted on the need to make use of the provisions of the Espoo Convention, which deals with consultation procedures to be followed between countries in Europe whenever issues of transboundary impacts arise. On March 3, 2010 Parliament in Malta approved a resolution to ratify this convention.

The Espoo Convention, the EU Directive on Environmental Impact Assessment and the EU Strategic Environment Assessment Directive establish the right of the Maltese public to be consulted by Italy in the procedures leading to the construction of a nuclear power station, both on the Italian mainland as well as in Sicily. This is definitely not enough.

Various countries are reconsidering their position on nuclear energy as a result of the Fukushima disaster. Italy’s government has started to feel the pressure ahead of a June anti-nuclear referendum championed by Antonio di Pietro and earlier this week temporarily suspended its nuclear programme.

Italy is a region which is seismically active. The devastation caused by the 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila is still imprinted in our memories. The 1908 earthquake at Messina/Reggio Calabria was much worse, the worst ever in Europe. It produced an estimated 13-metre tsunami wave in the central Mediterranean. In Messina alone, over 120,000 lost their lives.

Faced with government silence, I think the matter should be taken up by Maltese environmental NGOs in partnership with their Italian counterparts. Public opinion needs to be sensitised on the dangers that lie ahead as Fukushima is a warning we cannot afford to ignore. 

other posts on Nuclear Issues on this blog

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.

Chernobyl : it-22 anniversarju

majjal imwieled f’Chernobyl fl-1986

 

Nhar il-Ġimgħa 25 t’April kien it-22 anniversarju tad-diżastru nuklejari ta’ Chernobyl, fl-Ukrajina.

 

Fil-lejl bejn il-25 u s-26 t’April 1986 sploda r-rejattur numru 4 tal-impjant nuklejari ta’ Chernobyl. L-impatt tar-radjuattivita fuq medda kbira ta’ art mad-dawra kien bejn 30 u 40 darba tal-impatt fuq Hiroshima fl-1945. Effettwa ukoll il-pajjiżi diversi, fosthom dawk ġirien u iktar ukoll.

 

L-imwiet bħala riżultat tal-isplużjoni kienu 56 diretti u madwar 9,000 oħra li żviluppaw il-cancer bħala riżultat tar-radjazzjoni li kienu esposti għaliha.

 

Effettwa ukoll lill-annimali kif jidher mir-ritratt li qed jakkumpanja dan il-post.

 

Il-Punent kien induna b’dan l-inċident minn indaġni li saret fl-Isvezja nhar is-27 t’April 1986 meta kien instab li ħaddiema tal-impjant nuklejari f’Forsmark l-Isvezja kellhom indikazzjonijiet ta’ radjuattivita fuq ħwejjiġhom u dan ma kienx ġej mill-impjant Svediż.

 

 

Fortunatament rari jkollna inċidenti ta’ dan it-tip. Ma jfissirx dan li l-enerġija nukleari hi aċċettabbli. Tikkawża ħafna problemi.  Imma dawk niddiskutuhom f’xi okkażjoni oħra.