Chernobyl revisited

Chernobyl in Ukraine on 26 April 1986, 36 years ago, was the site of a major nuclear disaster. All that came to mind once more when the Russian and Byelorussian forces invaded Ukrainian territory over two months ago.

The invading forces took over the Chernobyl nuclear power station site. Troops were observed excavating trenches around the site where the nuclear accident happened 36 years ago. It was only this week that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that the radiation levels at Chernobyl, after being tested, have been certified as being within safe limits; but it is definitely not safe for a picnic!

The nuclear clean-up at Chernobyl is ongoing. Starting immediately in 1986, it is scheduled to last at least until the year 2065. Possibly much beyond that!

36 years on, Chernobyl is still of concern not just to those living in its vicinity, but to all of Europe.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster had brought many to their senses as to the dangers of nuclear energy, notwithstanding the sophisticated technology utilised in the industry. This was further reinforced by the Fukushima disaster, much closer in time on 11 March 2011. In the aftermath of Fukushima various countries opted for a phase-out of their dependence on nuclear energy. Germany led the way, our Italian neighbours to the North opting for a nuclear free future through a referendum in June 2011.

All this had a particular significance for Malta as it meant that plans for the construction of a nuclear power station at Palma di Montechiaro along the southern Sicilian coast, less than 100 kilometres to the North of Gozo, were mothballed. Southern Sicily as we know is an earthquake prone zone.

Occasionally there are rumblings of a renewed interest in the use of nuclear energy. The French government has for years been acting as a nuclear salesman all around the Mediterranean. It is known that agreements to set-up and operate various nuclear plants exist relative to various North African countries. Nicholas Sarkozy had even arrived at an agreement with Gaddafi just weeks before he was ousted.

Within the EU the debate is ongoing, at times spearheaded by the fact that the generation of nuclear energy emits relatively little carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour of electricity generated. Nuclear energy does however cause significant environmental negative impacts through the waste streams which it generates, namely spent nuclear fuel, rock waste at uranium mines and mills and the release of large amounts of uncontrolled radioactive emissions whenever accidents occur. The Chernobyl, Fukushima and the Three-Mile Island nuclear accidents are irrefutable testimony that the environmental damage resulting from nuclear accidents is not just enormous but also at times difficult to control.

The IAEA reports that as of 2022 there are 493 nuclear power reactors in operation in 32 different countries.  We tend to be aware of the major nuclear accidents at Chernobyl (1986) or Fukushima (2011), and possibly that at Three-Mile Island in the US (1979). Countless other “minor” accidents have however occurred over the years. In some cases, the accidents were under control just in time, avoiding their development into a major accident.

Our neighbours rejected nuclear energy twice in two different referenda, one in 1987 after Chernobyl, the other in 2011 after Fukushima. In 2011 the Italian government was planning to construct 10 nuclear reactors. These plans were only thwarted as a result of the 2011 referendum.

It is a responsibility of the Maltese government to be on the alert as these plans could be reactivated in the near future.  This would be a danger developing on our doorstep.

published on the Malta Independent on Sunday : 1st May 2022

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