LEARNING EXPENSIVE LESSONS
Two significant reports have been released in recent weeks detailing the technical progress which has been made in dealing with the aftermath of the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear reactor accidents. In both cases, progress has been substantial. Politically, however, the two events continue to have an impact on the on-going debate about nuclear energy’s future in some countries.
I hesitate to use the Newsletter to discuss disasters which seriously damaged the world-wide nuclear industry’s reputation and the economics of its operations, but believe it is important to do so as part of a process aimed at ensuring that lessons have been learned and are being applied rigorously.
The two reports which have just appeared demonstrate that this is is the case. Enormous strides have been made and are being made to help Ukraine and Japan recover from accidents which should never have happened and research into them has led to significant safety improvements, applicable to other reactor systems.
The Chernobyl disaster, which happened 29 years ago, was caused by a flawed Soviet reactor design operated by inadequately trained personnel. Thirty people are known to have died immediately or within weeks of the event but further tens of fatalities may be attributable to the disaster. By contrast no-one died as a result of radiation during the Fukushima incident, which occurred four years ago.
Chernobyl was a unique event and the only accident in the history of commercial nuclear power where radiation-induced fatalities occurred. But tragic as this was the numbers seem vanishingly small when compared with the number of deaths attributed to the gas leak which occurred at a pesticide factory in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, in India a couple of years before the Chernobyl event.
Again, estimates vary on the death toll but the government of Padhya Pradesh confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release, the effects of whch are still being felt. I am not aware of this leading to siren calls for the closure of the chemical industry.
The fact is that there is no totally safe industry. What we have to do – and in the case of nuclear energy I believe we are doing – is to learn from our mistakes, however serious or minor they are and spend what is necessary to prevent a recurrence. There may be times when that leads to unnecessary expenditure but that is the price which has to be paid for getting things wrong,
SAFETY DOESN ’T COME CHEAP
At Chernobyl, vast expenditure has been taking place for decades, supported by 43 countries, including the UK. As a result of it a new protective structure is expected to be in place over the stricken Reactor 4 by the end of 2017, on schedule.
Details of this project emerged at a donors conference organised by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), where it was revealed that finance for the construction of the new safe confinement (NSC) protective structure had been secured. The structure will replace the temporary cover – part of the concrete structures sometimes called a sarcophagus – which was placed over the reactor shortly after the accident occurred.
At the EBRD conference the G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States – and the European Commission confirmed an additional contribution of 165 million euros to the Chernobyl Shelter Fund, while other countries pledged 15 million euros. Several other countries indicated that they would make contributions “in the near future.” The EBRD itself had announced six months ago that it would provide an additional 350 million euros.
Before the new pledges the NSC project had been facing a funding gap of 615 million euros. This has now been reduced to 85 million euros. The new funds will allow work in Chernobyl to continue without delay according to the EBRD, which is administering the Chernobyl decommissioning fund. Meanwhile, efforts to raise the remaining shortfall will continue, with the EBRD covering any outstanding amount.
The Chernobyl Shelter Fund was set up in 1997 to help Ukraine raise the funds needed to decommission Chernobyl and return the site to a safe state. The NSC, at a cost of 1.5 billion euros, is the largest single element in the 2.5 billion euros plan developed to overcome the consequences of the 1986 accident.
With a height of 110 metres, a length of 165 metres, a span of 260 metres and a weight of more than 30,000 tonnes, the new safe confinement protective structure is the largest moveable land-based structure ever built. Work on it started in 2010 in a cleared area in two halves which were then lifted and joined.
The structure will protect the environment from radiation releases and provide the infrastructure to support the eventual dismantling of the shelter and associated nuclear waste management operations. It has a lifespan of at least 100 years.
Work on Unit 4 isn’t the only task being undertaken at Chernobyl. The three reactors which continued operations after the 1986 incident need to be decommissioned and the spent fuel and radioactive waste treated and stored safely.
For this purpose the international community is financing an interim storage facilitiy at a cost in excess of 300 million Euros as well as a liquid waste treatment facility.
The interim storage facility is in the final phase of construction and will process, dry and cut more than 20,000 fuel assemblies and place them in metal casks, which will be enclosed in concrete modules on site. The spent fuel will then be stored safely and securely for a minimum period of 100 years.
THE POLITICAL IM PACT
Although the design of the Chernobyl reactor was unique and, in that respect, of little relevance to the rest of the nuclear industry outside the then Eastern Bloc, it led to major changes in safety culture and in industry co- operation across the piece, particularly between the East and West. Former President Gorbachev went as far as to suggest that the Chernobyl accident was a more important factor in the fall of the Soviet Union than Perestroika, his programme of liberal reform.
Fewer than six years elapsed between the meltdown at Chernobyl and the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union – years marked by a growing suspicion of any statements issued by the government, dissatisfaction with the lack of health protection for members of the public and demands for greater transparency. Gorbachev has said that the Chernobyl explosion was “a turning point that opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue.”
Gorbachev had introduced his policy of glasnost or “openness” of ideas and expression not long before the Chernobyl incident occurred. It was his response to widespread censorship and government secrecy. Chernobyl, he believed, proved the wisdom and necessity of glasnost and it certainly had an impact. By 1987 glasnost had taken hold, with sudden openness dominating the Press and the public forum.
Outrage over the catastrophe even spread among formerly loyal citizens who had never questioned the infallibility of their government. Complaints trickled down through much of the population, even among those living in the Soviet satellite countries. As information about Chernobyl and its health effects seeped out people began to realise that their government and industries were in large part incompetent.
The facts could not be hidden as large quantities of radioactive substances were released into the air for about ten days, causing serious social and economic disruption for large populations in Belarus, Russia and the Ukraine before moving on to Scandinavia and other parts of Europe. In the British media speculation grew over whether the radioactive cloud would reach the UK.
MARILYN AND THE TWO JOHNS
There are those who remember where they were when Marilyn Monroe committed suicide (if she did), President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and John Lennon was murdered. I don’t. But I do remember where I was when that radioactive cloud of fine debris arrived during the early evening of Friday May 2nd 1986.
I was at a “meet the new Chairman” reception for senior staff and their partners at British Nuclear Fuels’ head office at Risley, hosted by Sir Christopher Harding. It was meant to be the start of a quiet weekend, following a run of four minor incidents at Sellafield, treated by sections of the media as though they were major.
When media interest was at its peak, Peter Sissons, then covering industry for Channel Four News, asked for permission to take a television crew up to Sellafield. Peter also asked if Walt Patterson, of Friends of the Earth, then the leading anti-nuclear organisation, could join him. He also asked if he could film inside the plutonium store, something no other TV programme maker had been allowed to do.
It was my own personal glasnost moment. On my advice Con Allday, the then BNFL Chairman, who was about to retire, agreed to all of Peter’s requests, despite the protests of the local management. The twenty-minute programme segment in Channel Four News which came out of the visit convinced me that we were on the right lines with the “open and honest” policy towards public information which I had introduced into the company.
While Peter Sissons described Sellafield as the most controversial nuclear power plant in the world (which it was pre-Chernobyl) he also described reprocessing concisely and effectively and Walt Patterson was honest enough to admit that he believed that BNFL, after decades of secrecy, was now genuinely trying to be more communicative. It was something of a public relations coup, but it rounded off several very tiring weeks, which included a succession of testing radio and television interviews. I was ready for a rest. It was not to be.
Before Sir Christopher’s party got under way I was asked to take a telephone call from the duty officer at Sellafield. I immediately suspected something had gone wrong at the factory. I was pretty well programmed to think that way after the string of minor incidents. Instead I was told that radioactive dust from Chernobyl had arrived in West Cumbria, identified by instruments on and off site.
The Sellafield management wanted to issue a Press release, arguing that it demonstrated the effectiveness of its environmental monitoring systems. I decided to delay such an announcement. My reasoning was that the site management could do little about the event and that the Press would probably suspect that site operations had something to do with the find. I told the duty officer to go away and prepare draft statements for me to send to Whitehall and a draft Press release. Half an hour or so later, while monitoring the news bulletins on the radio I heard
that the UK Atomic Energy Authority site at Winfrith in Dorset, the other end of the country from Sellafield, had announced the arrival of the Chernobyl contamination, claiming to be the first to spot it. Then I allowed Sellafield to issue its Press release. I don’t know whether the Chernobyl fall-out landed in West Cumbria before anywhere else in the country but I do know that it was identified at Sellafield before they spotted it at Winfrith. In a small way I probably changed history.
Chernobyl had a chastening effect on the world-wide nuclear energy industry. Morale plummeted in the UK and the power station reactor operators were particularly subdued. The disaster in the Ukraine had involved a reactor, not a reprocessing plant such as Sellafield, which had been heavily criticised by the utilities during the minor incident sequence there. Now it was their turn to face the glare of a hostile media.
A working party was set up by the industry to consider what action, if any, should be taken in the light of Chernobyl, chaired by Lord Marshall, the Chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board. I was one of BNFL’s two representatives. I believe I was instrumental in preventing what I consider would have been a public relations disaster.
The idea was put forward that the UK should shut down one of the country;s older
Magnox reactors in order to distract a frenzied media. The CEGB argued the target should be the oldest, Calder Hall, Britain’s first power station. I countered the suggestion by pointing out that Calder provided steam and electricity to Sellafield’s reprocessing plants, which deal with spent fuel from, among others, the CEGB.
To shut down a safe reactor because of an explosion in a reactor of a totally different design would imply that there was something wrong with it and we knew that wasn’t the case. Moreover, shutting down one reactor was likely to have a domino effect, bringing the operation of all the Magnox stations into question as fuel and reprocessing costs were spread over fewer and fewer stations,.
The economic argument prevailed and the Magnox stations stayed open. Calder
Hall continued to operate for a further 17 years – safely.
SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM
I found the discussions at Lord Marshall’s meetings a considerable shock to the system. They made me question whether I wanted to continue working in an industry where such a horrendous accident as Chernobyl could happen and I’m sure others began to have doubts, too. I didn’t have much time to reach a decision. A few weeks after the Chernobyl incident I had to address a conference at
Lancaster University, intended for local authority representatives. I threw away my prepared notes and delivered a speech describing what I thought would happen in the wake of the incident.
I came to the conclusion that nuclear power would continue, despite the public clamour for it to be halted, because it was needed. Those countries which were heavily dependent on it, such as France, Japan and, incredibly perhaps, the Soviet Union and its then Eastern European satellites, would certainly not give it up. I have been proved right.
I also expanded on the argument that even if the illogical decision was taken to shut down the UK nuclear industry because of an accident elsewhere in the world using a form of technology not used in the UK the shutdown process itself would have to be carefully managed if it was to be done safely.
I think I persuaded a few of the local authority delegates that there was some sort of future for nuclear energy but I failed miserably with a group of student demonstrators who had heard that I was on the university campus and invaded the conference. Effectively, they took over the meeting. I was asked if I minded but it was obvious to me that there might be trouble if I objected to their presence.
As I spoke the students moved slowly around the hall, their faces painted white and some of them carrying babies. From time to time a few of them would fall to the floor, simulating what they imagined to be the death throes of someone dying from radiation. It was not a pleasant experience.
Although I was convinced that nuclear power would continue I wasn’t 100 per cent sure that I wanted to be part of it. In the end I drew on my experiences as an industrial correspondent, covering industries such as coal, steel, chemicals and the fishing industry where regular fatalities had occurred, and came to the conclusion that nuclear, if anything, was probably safer than them. Again, I have been proved right.
PROGRESS AT FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI
In a sense the accident at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan makes the point for me. The power station involved was 40 years old and built to a 60-year old design. Nevertheless, the reactors still survived the earthquake and shut down as designed.
Then, 55 minutes later, the tsunami arrived. A giant wall of water soared over the protective wall and smashed into the nuclear plant. Initially the reactors survived that, too. However, some years earlier the site management had decided to place the back-up fuel tanks outdoors and these held the reserve fuel for the emergency diesel cooling pumps, to be used if the primary electrical pumps failed.
The tsunami washed away the power lines supplying electricity to the primary reactor cooling pumps and the back-up pumps could not be brought in to play. The fuel for them had floated away. Hot reactor fuel needs to be water-cooled for two to five days after an emergency shut-down, to remove residual heat.
It was serious enough but not as serious as the disaster at Chernobyl decades earlier. Nobody was killed or injured as a direct result of the situation at Fukushima Daiichi and there is no indication of long-term radiation effects on people, although some believe there will be. We may never know – any effects are likely to be swamped by cancers caused by other things, including natural radiation.
For the most part the world’s media has appeared to be more concerned with the nuclear element of the Fukushima story than with the fate of the more than 15,000 people who were killed by the tsunami which led to it.
The nuclear industry’s concern now is the decommissioning of Fukushima Daiichi and it is this which is the subject of the second report to emerge over the last few weeks. It has been prepared by the third mission of international experts assembled by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) A15-member team visited Japan between 9 and 17 February at the request of the country’s government and their main purpose was to provide an independent review of the planning and implementation of this decommissioning work.
The mission was conducted using IAEA Safety Standards and other relevant good practice, aimed at assisting Japn in the implementation of its mid to long- term roadmap on cleaning up the site.
The mission followed two similar missions in April 2013 and November– December2013. The latest mission release its final report after handing over a copy of it to the Japanese authorities on 13 May. The report says: “Japan has achieved good progress in improving its strategy and the associated plans, as well as in allocating the necessary resource towards the safe decommissioning” of Fukushima Daiichi.
The team also said it was “impressed by the thoughtful, diligent and continued efforts of Japanese counterparts to carefully consider all advisory pooints given by previous missions and to work on their effective implementation.”
The mission statement says that the situation on the Fukushima site has improved since the IAEA mission in 2013. Several important tasks had been accomplished, including the completion of the removal of fuel from unit 4 (the damaged reactor), the improvement and expansion of contaminated water treatment systems, the installation of new tanks and associated systems for contaminated water storage, the operation of underground water by-pass arrangements and the long-term management of radioactive waste.
The IAEA report contains advice on topics such as long-term radioactive waste management, measures against contaminated water and issues related to the remove of used fuel and fuel debris.
THE POLITICAL IM PACT – AGAIN
As at Chernobyl the disaster at Fukushima had a considerable impact on the world-wide nuclear industry and on public opinion. It looks likely to drag on for some time yet. Initially, successive Japanese governments were uncertain about the long-term future of the country’s nuclear energy industry, if indeed it had one. An early administration decided it would shut down all of the country’s reactors and keep them shut. Its successor decided that there was a place for nuclear and that it had a key role in Japan’s energy future.
Meanwhile all 48 of Japan’s nuclear power reactors remain off-line, pending confirmation that they meet heightened post-Fukushima safety requirements set by a newly-formed Nuclear Regulation Authority. Nevertheless, plans to decommission five of the older units have already been announced.
The effective shut-down of Japan’s nuclar power stations has cost the country dearly, economically and environmentally. It has forced the country to rely more and more on imported fuel and its rush to fossil fuels has led to Japanese carbon dioxide emissions rising to some 10.8 per cent above 1990 levels.
A similar picture emerges in Germany, which decided to shut down all of its reactors by 2022. Eight of the 17 operating reactors in Germany were permanently shut down following Fukushima. Instead, Germany has pushed on with renewable energy, primarily wind power, and is burning more and more fossil fuels.
To end on an up-beat note. Not every country responded to Fukushima in the way Japan (understandably perhaps) and Germany (with less reason) has. Nuclear power capacity world-wide is increasing steadily, with more than 60 reactors under construction in 16 countries. Most reactors on order or planned are in the Asia region, although there are plans for new units in Russia. And at long last we appear to be about to build new nuclear power stations in the UK as well.