Is Nuclear Power a Safe Solution to Climate Change?

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It’s been claimed that the French experience proves that nuclear power can be produced safely. but recenly existing plants have developed leaks, and construction of a ‘Third Generation’ reactor had to be halted.

From the United Nations Environment Program 2009 Yearbook

Since the mid 1970s, France has pursued a strong policy of nuclear power use and by 2004 it had the second largest nuclear generating capacity after the United States. France derives over 75 per cent of its electricity from its 59 nuclear plants. Nuclear power development in France is often cited as evidence that nuclear power can be used safely and efficiently. However, recent industry problems have called into question the desirability of a global nuclear power revival.

Safety concerns at a critical moment

The most recent series of worrying incidents began on 7 July 2008, when uranium leaked from a waste management plant near the southeastern French town of Tricastin, 40 kilometres north of Avignon. Initial reports from Socatri, a subsidiary of the government-controlled nuclear company Areva, estimated that 30 thousand litres of solution containing 12 grams per litre of un-enriched uranium leaked when a storage tank overflowed.

Socrati later revised that to only six thousand litres, but the spill still exceeded the permitted annual quantity of radioactive effluent from the site by 100 times. The liquid soaked into the ground and then passed into the Gaffiere and the Lauzon, two nearby rivers that flow into the Rhone.

Although the Nuclear Safety Agency estimated that uranium concentrations in one of the contaminated rivers were about one thousand times World Health Organization guidelines, the experts stated that the risk to the public was low. Nonetheless, local authorities enforced an emergency plan in the three villages surrounding the plant. A ban was placed on drinking water from private wells, swimming in the rivers, and irrigating fields. Eating fish caught in the contaminated rivers was also outlawed.

Then on 18 July, Areva detected an enriched uranium leak at a nuclear fuel processing site in Romans-sur-Isère, about 100 kilometres north of Tricastin. The leak came from a buried pipe transporting liquid uranium from the nuclear fuel fabrication facility to the treatment station. Discovered during a maintenance operation, the leak could have been active for years.

Also on 18 July, the utility company Electricité de France (EDF) reported that 15 employees had been exposed to low levels of radiation at a nuclear plant in the Rhône Valley south of Lyon.

Two weeks later, 100 employees at an EDF nuclear plant in Tricastin were also exposed to low-level radiation. Exposure sensors detected a rise in the radiation level while maintenance work was being carried out at a reactor that had been shut since a leak forced its temporary closure only a few days before (BBC 2008). The incident was rated at level zero on the seven-point scale used to gauge the severity of nuclear accidents and EDF alleged none of its employees faced serious health risks.

This is not the first time radioactive leaks have posed a risk to populations in France. In May 2006, leaks at the dumpsite Centre Stockage l’Aube in eastern France resulted in low levels of radioactive contamination of groundwater less than 10 kilometres from the famous Champagne vineyards. That dumpsite, which contains waste mostly from EDF and Areva, showed fissures in the storage cells. The same month in 2006, another dumpsite run by France’s National Radioactive Waste Management Agency in Normandy had leakage problems. The levels of radioactivity in underground water used by farmers were estimated at up to ninety times European safety limits.

Far from close

Nuclear energy has recently been heralded as a potential champion in the fight against climate change and new nuclear developments are being planned around the world. But safety issues related to nuclear production and radioactive waste management, as well as to terrorism and accidents, constitute a asignicant downside. Risk is closely related to issues of trust, competence, and accountability.

The recent leakages in France, far from showing that safety issues have become less of a problem in the nuclear industry with experience and over time, undermine the public’s trust in the nuclear power industry. The High Commission for Transparency and Information on Nuclear Safety, for instance, concluded that the handling of the incident in Tricastin revealed “…a chain of malfunctions and human neglect…” on the part of Socatri. Such incidents also suggest that the working conditions at power facilities are examined for safety and accountability.

Public trust has been undermined by the findings that indicate faults in the construction process of new facilities. In March this year, France’s nuclear safety authority identified shortcomings during an inspection of the new Third Generation European Pressurised Reactor that is being built in Flamanville, Manche. The agency uncovered several chronic faults in construction and ordered construction work to be halted.

The future of the nuclear industry now seems to depend on the balance between people’s fears of nuclear contamination and the growing need for carbon neutral energy. Where that balance will settle is not yet known.


1 Comment

  • The problem with this article is that it is quite ‘static’ about the results of these contamination incidents. In fact, EVERY one of them was found to be “inconsequential” to the people involved or the environment. On the scale of things, meaning the effect of fossil fuel, nuclear power *remains* the safest form of power in the world today.

    To cite on example how an article like this is faulty based on it’s preconceived opposition to low-carbon nuclear energy: the plant in Famanville where construction was ‘halted’…for a few weeks. They are back building it again. The article *of course* fails to mention this.

    The anti-nuclear movement is going to have to do better. People are getting more educated about nuclear energy and the *history* of nuclear energy, it’s role right now in mitigating carbon out put, and are opposition to nuclear energy is *sinking* slowly as it has been shown that we can eliminate coal plants if build more nuclear plants. Renewables can make no such claim without extensive, non-existing mass industrial scaled-up energy storage systems, grid upgrades and huge costs.

    David Walters