Nuclear: the debacle has begun

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That was in 1958. The 6 founding States of the European Community signed the Euratom Treaty which committed them « to create the conditions for the development of a powerful nuclear industry, a source of vast energy supplies and of a modernization of techniques as well as of multiple other applications contributing to the well-being of their peoples » (preamble of the Treaty).

This euphoric vision of nuclearization was concretized by the implementation of ambitious programs for the establishment of nuclear power plants with France and Belgium in the role of conscientious first class. The 1970s saw the first clouds and showers of criticism of the advantages of an energy presented as clean, safe, inexhaustible and inexpensive. In 1979, the accident at Three Miles Island in the United States seriously shook the certainties of the nucleocrats and the governments. But it was the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 that shattered the image of infallibility that had been maintained thanks to a well-locked policy of secrecy and generalized disinformation.

Despite carefully crafted speeches discrediting obsolete Soviet technology and, by contrast, touting the safety and modernity of Western facilities, the nuclear industry was suffering, especially as its alleged economic advantages were increasingly seen as largely spurious. Problems as important as the management of waste and the dismantling of decommissioned facilities still did not offer reliable answers.

The post-Chernobyl period has plunged many countries that had chosen nuclear power into skepticism: there has been little or no investment. In Europe, while the Euratom Treaty has remained unchanged, with its many direct and indirect support mechanisms for the nuclear sector, the only significant investments have been devoted to modernizing production units in Eastern European countries. The only exceptions are France, which has launched the EPR, and, less clearly, the United Kingdom.

The fatal blow came on March 11, 2011, with the Fukushima disaster. The myth of an infallible nuclear production system has definitely disappeared. The catastrophic accident, in a technologically advanced country, has become a reality and a plausible hypothesis for Europe. Several European states have explicitly or implicitly decided to confirm or schedule the withdrawal from nuclear power, thus joining the 14 member states that have never chosen nuclear power, in total violation of the Euratom Treaty. The decision of the German government, taken very quickly after March 11, 2011, is the most spectacular. Since March 2011, serious events and highly significant facts have followed one another to accelerate the decline of an industry overwhelmed by doubt.

I. The Fukushima disaster is still happening. The core meltdown of 3 reactors in Fukushima and the loss of cooling of several spent fuel storage pools have health and environmental consequences that are still very present today:

- radioactive discharges into the Pacific Ocean and groundwater are severely contaminating the marine environment and water resources;

- the evacuation of spent fuel from reactor No. 4 is still in progress;

- More than 30,000 workers were assigned to manage the disaster, risking their health;

- Hundreds of thousands of people live in an environment polluted by radioactivity.

II. According to the IRSN (Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire), the cost of a major nuclear accident in France could be between 430 and 760 billion euros(1)!

III. On February 5, 2014, a fire broke out 650m deep at the world’s first operating deep nuclear waste disposal site near Carlsbad, New Mexico. On February 14, releases of plutonium and americium from waste containers were detected in the galleries of the site.

IV. No dismantling of decommissioned reactors has been carried out in the world to date. The ongoing dismantling of the old Brennilis power plant in Brittany, shut down in 1985, has already cost twenty times more than expected. The dismantling cost projections proposed by experts range from a few tens to a few hundred billion euros(2)!

But the most decisive event for the future(?) of nuclear power is undoubtedly the decision taken in March 2014 by Electrabel to bring forward the scheduled shutdown of s reactors at Doel 3 and Tihange, following tests carried out on the reactors’ vessels. It will be recalled that defects (micro cracks) were highlighted on these tanks in the summer of 2012. The tests, imposed by the AFCN (Federal Nuclear Control Authority), gave unexpected results: the mechanical properties of the materials are more influenced by irradiation than the experts expected.

New tests are scheduled to be able to interpret and evaluate these results, but the reactors concerned are already shut down for an indefinite period…

The impact of such an event is measured, not only for the Belgian nuclear fleet but for all the aging reactors in operation in Europe. Since the plan to extend the life of all nuclear reactors is clearly stated, especially by our French neighbors, the problems of Doel 3 and Tihange 2 are likely to seriously thwart their ambitions. Even more so, if we take into consideration that the tests mentioned have, according to the AFCN, never been performed elsewhere in the world!(3)

Rather than whining about the allegedly hasty decision to get out of nuclear power, as some politicians, nostalgic for the 1950s, are doing, it would be more judicious to assume once and for all the facts, which are admittedly cruel but inescapable: the nuclear choice is a choice of the past based on an illusion which will weigh heavily, through its financial consequences, on our future.

Stalling, denial and misinformation can only make the situation worse.

Paul Lannoye

Notes et références
  1. Pour plus d’informations ; consulter le site IRSN
  2. Lire à ce sujet l’ouvrage récent de Claude-Marie Vadrot: « La centrale indémontable », Max Milo, 2012.
  3. FANC/ASCN : communiqué de presse du 26 mars 2014.

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