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Lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima: Is Europe Prepared for a Nuclear Disaster?

origin 1The war in Ukraine, more extreme weather events and cracks found in French reactors have some experts worried: is Europe ready for a nuclear accident? © RockedBuzz via Euronews / Canva

Exactly 12 years ago, a massive earthquake and tsunami caused the second worst nuclear accident in history at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.

The anniversary of the catastrophic collapse that displaced 160,000 people and cost the Japanese government more than €176 billion should in itself be enough to remind us of the potential threat of a nuclear spill, but a series of recent events has launched the alarm also in Europe.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has repeatedly knocked out the country’s electricity grid, resulting in blackouts Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, where energy is needed to avoid overheating of reactors as in the 1986 Chernobyl radioactive disaster.

Meanwhile, Europe’s other nuclear reactors are getting old: they were built on average 36.6 years ago \- and recent checks in France have revealed cracks in several structures.

Some energy experts have warned that extreme weather events caused by climate change could pose a serious threat to the EU’s 103 nuclear reactors, which account for about a quarter of the electricity generated in the bloc.

Jan Haverkamp, ​​senior expert on nuclear energy and energy policy for Greenpeace, said the chances of Europe seeing a major accident like Fukushima were now “realistic” and “we should consider them”.

“We are not adequately prepared,” he told RockedBuzz via Euronews Next.

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European Energy Commissioner Kadri Simson says the backbone of the EU’s future carbon-free energy system will be nuclear-backed renewables.

“The reality is that these renewables will need to be complemented with a stable baseline electricity generation. That’s why nuclear power is […] a real solution” he said in November at the 15th European Nuclear Energy Forum.

The challenge with the strategy to power renewables with nuclear power is that it relies on the continued operation of aging nuclear power plants.

Five of the six scenarios proposed in the “Report on the energies of the future” – a study commissioned by the French government – proposes that to move to a net zero energy system by 2050, renewables would have to rely on a number of existing nuclear power plants.

The rationale for using old plants is that “we can’t make enough reactors before that time,” Haverkamp explained.

The French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) agrees: “The rate of construction of new nuclear reactors to achieve the proposed scenario […] it would be difficult to sustain,” he said in a Report 2021.

“Over the past 70 years of using nuclear power, it has become very clear that nuclear power does not deliver on its promises, but is rather a big, very substantial problem to the direction of nuclear proliferation…and on the waste issue radioactive substances, for which we do not have an acceptable technical solution,” said Haverkamp.

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Are obsolete nuclear power plants safe?

The ASN says a “good standard” of nuclear safety and radiation protection can only be achieved if nuclear licensees take full responsibility for them. In other words, plant operators, under the supervision of independent national regulators, are primarily responsible for the safety of their plants.

The maintenance of a nuclear power plant depends on a number of factors, such as its design and oversight history. But there are other factors that come into play, such as humans prone to errors, earthquakes, tsunamis, fires, floods, tornadoes, or even terrorist attacks.

THE Fukushima the 2011 disaster involved a more than 40-year-old nuclear power plant, and the accident was partly attributed to design flaws and inadequate safety measures.

Upgrades for outdated systems can reduce risk in some respects, Haverkamp said, “but there’s still a risk: It can go wrong, simply because they keep working.”

France has one of the best nuclear safety records in the world. However, Bernard Doroszczuk, the head of his nuclear safety watchdog ASN, said earlier this year that a “systemic review” was needed “to individually examine and justify the ability of old reactors to continue to operate beyond 50, or even 60 years”, also allowing to anticipate the new challenges posed by climate change.

Just this week, the French electricity utility EDF reported “non-negligible” defects on the cooling pipes of two reactors in northern and eastern France.

The cracks, located in the emergency loop that feeds water to cool the system in an emergency, weren’t thought to be dangerous because the reactors were undergoing maintenance, but their discovery has reignited debate over France’s strategies for supervising its fleet. nuclear.

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How safe are people living around nuclear power plants?

There is another element that is particularly important to nuclear safety: the population density around nuclear facilities. Areas inhabited by millions of people are much more difficult to evacuate than those that are almost deserted.

After the Fukushima accident in March 2011, Declan Butler, a reporter for the scientific journal Nature, collaborated with NASA and Columbia University on a study comparing population densities around the world’s nuclear power plants.

When Butler released his study, two-thirds of the world’s nuclear fleet had a higher population density within a 30-kilometer radius than Fukushima, home to 172,000 people at the time of the spill.

Specifically, the study found that population densities around nuclear reactors were much higher in Europe than in Fukushima.

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In France, for example, Butler estimated that around 930,000 people lived within a 30km radius around Fessenheim, just one of several plants located in the north-east of the country, and 700,000 people lived around the Bugey plant, 35km away. east of Lyon, the third French establishment -the largest city.

While trying to make sense of some safety inconsistencies, Butler also stumbled upon the concept of “beyond design basics,” a concept that implies that some catastrophic scenarios are not fully considered in the design process because they are deemed too unlikely.

The Fukushima Daiichi plant, for example, was located in an area designated as having a relatively low probability of a large earthquake and tsunami on Japan’s seismic hazard map. The fact that the plant was not prepared to face such dramatic environmental risks was therefore partly due to “beyond the basics of design”: the earthquake and tsunami were more powerful than the plant was designed to withstand.

Have we learned anything from Chernobyl and Fukushima?

Haverkamp said efforts have focused primarily on technical preparedness to prevent nuclear accidents, but not on emergency preparedness or population preparedness.

“Every nuclear country in the EU, I’m afraid, is not prepared enough at the moment in case an accident occurs,” he said.

“And I can guarantee you that if we had an accident in Europe, it would end up in chaos again, just like it happened in Fukushima.”

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We learned a lot from Fukushima, said Dr. Irwin Redlener, American scholar and disaster medicine expert.

“The thing is, we talk about the lessons, but then we don’t act on them,” he told RockedBuzz via Euronews Next.

Humanity has gotten better at responding to small emergencies like large building fires, small storms and blizzards, but when it comes to large-scale disasters — like nuclear accidents — our response capabilities remain “dysfunctional,” he explained, ” because we are not prepared for them”.

We are victims of “random acts of preparation […] without a cohesive project”.

What to do in the event of a nuclear meltdown?

Several international organizations provide resources explaining what to do in the event of a nuclear emergency. The Red Cross is just one of them – e reviewing their recommendations it’s a reasonable use of your time.

After all, there are two things standing in the way of global preparedness, Redlener said. The first is what he calls “the illusion of security,” and the other is “disengaged and uninformed citizens.”

The illusion of safety or “preparedness theater,” she said, is the fantasy that “somehow we know what we’re doing, or that we know what we’re going to do” in the face of such a cataclysmic event.

But there are a number of simple things we can do after a nuclear accident that could “save our lives if we knew about them,” he added.