One of the many odd qualities of the nuclear industry is its seemingly boundless optimism: “everything’s going to be just fine, folks.”
Apparently, there’s no need to worry about terrorists attacking nuclear reactors. Which is why Greenpeace activists could peacefully walk into two French nuclear power plants - Nogent-sur-Seine and Cruas - this morning without being challenged by any security measures whatsoever should be absolutely no cause for alarm, according to the authorities. The two activists who entered the Cruas plant were able to avoid detection for 14 hours. Our team that entered the Nogent-sur-Seine power plant, just 95 kilometres from Paris, were even able to scale the dome of one of the reactors and paint a pretty picture on it.
EDF, the operator of these plants, happily announced that Greenpeace’s visit to Nogent-sur-Seine “had no impact on the safety of the plant, or the safety of employees at the site.” Of course not: Greenpeace aren’t terrorists. Would EDF be so positive if terrorists had come calling today? With the nuclear industry able to see the good in everything, we can say: yes, probably. Everything’s going to be just fine, folks.
Another example of boundless optimism in the nuclear industry is the recent stress tests conducted by European Union countries on their nuclear reactors in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Supposedly designed to identify safety concerns at the reactors, most operators felt there was no need to test the vulnerability of reactors to being struck by a large aircraft or to review evacuation plans in the event of an accident. And why would there be? It’s not as if anybody has ever flown large aircraft into buildings or people have had to be evacuated from a nuclear disaster.
We’re seeing much the same attitude right now with the Fukushima nuclear disaster site in Japan. A report by Fukushima’s owner Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has found “no evidence of significant errors” in the company’s response to the catastrophe of March 12. That’s right: TEPCO judged its own performance as essentially error free.
Really - no significant errors? The lack of information given to the Japanese government by TEPCO in the days after the disaster looks pretty significant to us. The fact that many of workers battling at the plant to bring it under control are poorly trained and over-worked, with some lacking the proper protective clothing that led to them being injured looks significant as well. Is “misplacing” 198 of those workers insignificant? How about misreading radiation levels?
The report also seems to neglect TEPCO’s significant errors before the earthquake and tsunami. The most major one is that it knew in 2008 that the Fukushima plant was vulnerable to a tsunami of the magnitude we saw this year and yet did absolutely nothing to improve safety measures. The disaster was preventable. The sunny “everything’s going to be just fine, folks” attitude strikes again.
It’s also a little early for TEPCO to give its response to the Fukushima disaster a full clean bill of health. Nuclear accidents happen in slow motion and there are many questions about what happened after the tsunami struck still unanswered. This isn’t over by a long way. TEPCO will be responding to the disaster for many years. There’s still plenty of time for TEPCO to make big mistakes.
Meanwhile, 45 tonnes of highly radioactive water have leaked from the stricken Fukushima over the weekend, some of which may have already reached the ocean. This news came a day after TEPCO said it had made no errors.
Still, with Greenpeace (or anyone else for that matter) able to walk into nuclear power plants at will and TEPCO praising its own disaster response, everything’s going to be just fine, folks. Really.
(The above image - copyright Greenpeace - is of France's Cruas nuclear power plant.)