European Nuclear Industry Hit by Terrorism Fallout

LONDON, United Kingdom, October 22, 2001 (ENS) - Europe's nuclear energy industry is proving to be a victim of September's terrorist attacks in the United States. A rising fear of massive radioactive releases is galvanizing the anti-nuclear movement and raising new questions about the sector's long term future.

First in the firing line are the nuclear fuel reprocessing plants at Sellafield in Britain and La Hague in France, following alarming estimates of potential radioactive releases in the case of an aircraft collision similar to those on September 11.

According to a report by consultancy Wise-Paris released late last month, the potential release of caesium-137 from La Hague's irradiated fuel cooling ponds is 60 times the amount released in the 1986 Chernobyl accident in Ukraine.

This month, Britain's "New Scientist" magazine reported the potential caesium release from Sellafield at 44 times that released from Chernobyl.

These dire forecasts were taken up in a debate in the European parliament today, with Irish Green MEP Nuala Ahern calling for "no fly zones" to be established around both plants. "Nuclear plants are a ticking time bomb in our midst and the only logical response is to close them all down and end this terrible threat," she argued.

Cogema

Government owned French nuclear fuel reprocessing plant Cogema at Cap de la Hague, a peninsula jutting into the English Channel. (Photo courtesy Cogema)
In a statement September 19, Cogema said that, "A permanent overflight ban is in force at the site. Considering its geographical position, the French armed forces would have time to intervene if any breach of this ban were suspected."

Cogema tried to reassure the public that no plane could deliberately crash into the facility's irradiated fuel storage pools by explaining, "The structures are partially built under ground, and the pools occupy a small area in relation to the total area of the installations around them. It would thus be impossible for an airplane to crash vertically into a pool."

Even strongly pro-nuclear European states have had their nerve tested by the realization that reprocessing and other nuclear plants could be terrorist targets. The French government last week said that anti-aircraft missile batteries are to be stationed at La Hague.

In Germany, the effect has been to cement or even speed up the ongoing nuclear phase-out program, culminating in media reports this weekend that Economic Minister Werner Mueller has called on power firms to phase out their oldest stations ahead of schedule. This follows a pledge by Environment Minister Juergen Trittin to order nuclear plant closures in case of a credible threat of attack.

The new sense of insecurity has pervaded protests from the Irish government and UK environmental groups over the British government's decision to license a new plutonium fuel manufacturing plant.

Austrian protests against the Temelin nuclear power station in neighboring Czech Republic have also been given new wings just as the plant is moving towards full power for the first time.

Only the nuclear industry itself appears oblivious to the sands shifting under its feet, with European association Foratom continuing to focus its arguments on nuclear's potential to avoid greenhouse gas emissions at a conference in Brussels earlier this month.

Nuclear power plants are in operation in eight out of the 15 nations of the European Union and generate about 35 percent of the EUís electricity. This nuclear share rises to at least 50 percent during off-peak periods, as nuclear plants are mainly used for generating baseload electricity.

A number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, in line for EU membership, also rely heavily on nuclear generated electricity.

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{Published in cooperation with ENDS Environment Daily, Europe's choice for environmental news. Environmental Data Services Ltd, London. Email: envdaily@ends.co.uk}