Safe reactors are a myth. An accident can occur in any nuclear reactor, causing the release of large quantities of deadly radiation into the environment. Even during normal operation, radioactive materials are regularly discharged into the air and water.
The nuclear industry was suffering serious nuclear accidents long before the catastrophic Chernobyl accident in 1986. Today, the industry is still plagued with incidents, accidents and near-misses. Aging of nuclear reactors, embrittlement of metals, corrosion and fatigue are endemic throughout the world’s nuclear industry. At the same time, nuclear operators are continually trying to reduce costs due to greater competition in the electricity market and the need to meet shareholder expectations.
The following examples show the world is never far away from the next nuclear catastrophe.
- Japan 1999: Two workers at the Tokai-mura nuclear fuel plant received lethal doses of radiation. A year later, it was revealed that vital safety data and inspections had been manipulated to avoid expensive repairs and long closures.
- Japan 2004: Despite claims that the nuclear industry and government had adopted higher safety standards, a steam explosion at the Mihama reactor killed five workers. In 2006, a district court ordered the shut down of a nuclear reactor as it could not withstand severe earthquakes. All of Japan’s reactors are sitting on top of one of the world’s most active geological faults.
- Ohio 2002: A catastrophic accident at the David-Besse reactor was avoided when it was discovered that corrosion had come close to penetrating the vital pressure vessel, which could lead to a complete reactor core meltdown. Ten years earlier, Greenpeace filed a complaint to the U.S. nuclear regulator warning of the risk of corrosion at all U.S. nuclear power plants. The warning was ignored. Following the discovery at David-Besse, the reactor was shut down for two years (costing $600 million US), but then given a licence to operate until 2017.
- France 2003: The French nuclear safety agency activated its emergency response centre following torrential rainfall along the lower Rhone River and the emergency shutdown of two reactors (Cruas-3 and 4) due to flood damage.
- England 2000: Cumbria’s Sellafield nuclear fuel processing site was found to have a fundamental failure of safety culture by government inspectors, but only after public disclosure of violations of quality control and safety standards at its Sellafield MOX Plant. This helped convince the government of Ireland to launch a legal challenge against the British government at the United Nations International Court in Hamburg on the issue of nuclear safety at Sellafield.
These are just a few examples of a global problem. In 2005, Greenpeace updated its international reactor hazards study. One conclusion was that the standard nuclear reactors (light water), the most common type operating today, could release up to 10 times more radioactivity in an accident than the Chernobyl disaster.