The nuclear power plants around us are “The Sword of Damocles” over our heads. A new report by independent experts, submitted to authorities in France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg, questions security at French and Belgian nuclear facilities and points at their vulnerability to outside attacks. These experts are particularly concerned about a certain type of facility at nuclear plants: the spent fuel storage pools. These pools tend to contain the highest volume of radioactive matter in a nuclear plant and are very poorly protected. Rather than wait for the worst to happen, let’s address this issue and take action.

Nuclear spent fuel pools © Greenpeace

Nuclear spent fuel pools

What does the report say?

Because it contains sensitive information about security at French and Belgian nuclear facilities, the report will not be released to the general public. It will be submitted by Greenpeace France, Greenpeace Belgium, Greenpeace Germany, Greenpeace Switzerland and Greenpeace Luxembourg to the relevant nuclear security authorities in order to alert them to the issue.

Click here to read the Executive Summary of the full report.

Independent experts who contributed to the writing of this report reviewed nuclear power plants in France and Belgium, and focused on the ability of spent fuel storage pools to withstand a malicious attack.

Fuel pools: the Achilles heel of French and Belgian nuclear plants

Spent fuel pools are used to temporarily store the fuel from nuclear reactors. After irradiation in a reactor core, the fuel is still very hot and radioactive. It needs to be cooled in the water of these ponds, which also provides shielding from radiation. After a few years, a tiny part of this fuel will be “reprocessed”, while the remaining fuel waits for a final storage solution.

Nuclear Power Plant Fessenheim in France © Bernd Lauter / Greenpeace

The nuclear power plant Fessenheim by the Rhine river, France. In the foreground a warning sign in three languages.

A spent fuel storage pool can hold several tonnes of radioactive fuel, equal to two or three times the volume of its reactor’s core.

In the event of an outside attack, if a pool is damaged and loses its water, the fuel is no longer cooled and a nuclear accident begins: massive amounts of radioactivity escape into the atmosphere with very serious consequences.

While the reactor building is equipped with a reinforced containment structure, spent fuels pools are very poorly protected.

Confirmed criminal intents against nuclear activities and facilities

When these nuclear facilities opened, about 40 years ago, the threats identified were not the same as the ones today. Since the 9-11 attacks, the geopolitical situation has changed – we all know, the current climate is tense. An isolated individual or criminal organisation, independent of any State, has the ability to undertake a malicious act which could not be countered by conventional security measures. And in recent years, people with criminal intent have shown clear signs of interest in nuclear facilities and activities.

The risk looming over nuclear plants cannot be ignored any longer. France’s nuclear operator, EDF, must act responsibly and stop putting French citizens and their European neighbours in danger. Updates to secure these parts of power plants are necessary. The same applies to plants in Belgium, where spent fuel pools at Doel and Tihange, operated by Engie-Electrabel, are equally ill-protected.

The French and Belgian nuclear plants are under threat, in risk of nuclear accidents and have poorly protected pools: this is a serious and worrying issue. But not a reason to stay silent.  Given the number of nuclear reactors in France, all French citizens are affected. People living close to these facilities in Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Germany are also affected. Greenpeace France wishes to play its role as whistle-blower in a prudent and responsible way by reporting on this risk.

Mehdi Leman is a Digital Campaigner at Greenpeace France.