Nuclear under fire

Dangerous reactors send a clear signal: phase out nuclear power

Feature story - 6 July, 2007
It's been a bad few weeks for the nuclear industry, especially in Germany. While the nuclear companies were lobbying to reverse the German nukes phase out, two German nuclear plants suffered a fire and emergency shut down.

Fire fighter tackle fire at Kruemmel nuclear plant in Germany. Despite safety risks, plant operators have lobbied to postpone the shut down of many old nuclear plants.

Update, 16 July 2007:

There has been a fire and a leak in Japan, at the world's largest nuclear power plant. Our statement.

Withthe nuclear industry's false assurances of safety and reliabilityexposed, German chancellor Merkel announced Germany would not revisenor abandon the plan for nuclear-phase out by 2021.

As in manyother countries, nuclear energy companies are lobbying theGerman government to keep old, dangerous reactors open for longer. Butit was recent events that highlighted the growing nuclear risks. Lessthan a week beforethe German energy summit a fire broke out at Kruemmel nuclear stationand another one in Brunsbuttel suffered an emergency shut down due totechnical failure. Also, there was a similar UK accident in May where afire shut down an old reactor at Oldbury.

In many countries most nuclear plants are reaching the end of theirplanned life spans of 25-30 years. Most energy companies who operatethe plants are pushing to extend operations many years beyond the timethe plants were originally planned to close. This has serious safety implications. Not onlyare older reactors prone to all kinds of failures, like any old,complex machines, but many of their crucial components are physicallyloosing their ability to withstand extreme situations that may occurduring an accident. For example the reactor vessel, at the very heart of theplant and key for nuclear safety, gets more and more brittle overtime due to intensive radiation. 

Compromising on safety

While anold car that fails a safety test is taken off the road, an old nuclearplant that fails safety tests tends to get patched up and given alicense to continue working, despite the fact a serious accident couldthreaten millions of lives. Operators claim that due to theirgrowing experience and technical upgrades, they can run reactors muchmore safely and reliably twenty one years after Chernobyl. State safety inspectors buy this line and tend tobe positive about proposals for plant life extensions.   

These reactor fires were a reminder that we cannot trust operators, and not even state regulators. Often the true scale of theproblems are hidden. Only a week after the fire at Krummel station itwas revealed that there was a direct nuclear risk involved. Yet aspokesperson from plant operator Vattenfall stated thefire "looked more dramatic than it really was"

and that

"it affectedonly a transformer with no implication for nuclear safety"

.

"I always want to put ice cubes inthe hats of those who talk about a nuclearrenaissance."

Jorma Aurela,a senior energy official in the Finnish Ministry of Trade andIndustry.

New reactor, same problems

Thegreat hope of the nuclear industry is the showcase EPR reactor inOlkiluoto, Finland. But even before it's close to being finished it'sdemonstrating the familiar problems of nuclear energy. After just twoyears of building it is 18 months behind schedule and a massive E700million over budget. This supposed 'showcase' project has had so manysafety problems with substandard construction that the Finnish nuclearregulator has uncovered a series of safety "deficiencies".

Injust two years there have been multiple major problems withconstruction of this 'bright new hope' for the nuclear industry atOlkiluoto. First the concrete base was made of poor quality concrete,and then the reactor vessel failed safety standards. Cooling pipes hadto be scrapped due to bad quality steel and it was discovered the steelcontainment lining (crucial to protect against radiation leaks) wasfound to have almost 50 holes in the wrong places.

Relying on keeping old dangerous reactors going long past their closeby date and unable to even build on new reactor without massive delays,blowing the budget and failing minimum safety standards. That betraysthe industry hot air of an "nuclear renaissance" for what it really is- an industry on life support, kept alive only by massive tax payersubsidies and putting profit over safety.

Luckily we cansecure energy supply and prevent dangerous climate change withouthazardous nuclear power. As our Energy Revolution scenario shows, wecan phase out existing reactors without building new ones, and achievethe required cut in greenhouse emissions.

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