Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 18, April 23, 2011
Nuclear Industry’s Cover-Up, Lies And Denial: Beware of the French Nuclear Model
Monday 25 April 2011, by#socialtags
by Harsh Kapoor
To this day, contradictory estimations of the magnitude as well as the consequences of the Fukushima disaster continue to illustrate how an iron hand seems to tightly control information, in the ‘larger interests’, and the world’s major nuclear energy firms, pro-nuclear lobbies, Japan itself along with international authorities such as WHO, IAEA or CTBTO, seem to be engaged in the organised downplaying and retention of a precious information that citizens’ groups claim is already in their possession. Secrecy is built into the nuclear establishment’s mindset everywhere, and it prevails across the nuclear industry internationally.
Starting after WWII, in Japan itself, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs victims were made invisible to the public eye and discriminated, and in the same go were their concerns regarding nuclear dangers; while the USA promoted their ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme in the war-battered country, the real push came in the seventies from Japan which went on to build 55 reactors.
Today, there seems to be grand collusion between high level technocrats (an influential nuclear lobby sits in Japan’s Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry; METI), and builders and operators of the nuclear plants (the Federation of Electricity Companies—FEPC; the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency—NISA; and the industrial groups that build the nuclear power plants—Toshiba, Hitachi, Mitsubishi). They fund the media to assure the public opinion that nuclear energy is perfectly safe.
The Japanese Democratic Party Government that came to power in 2009 (after a five-decade uninterrupted rule by the LDP) changed nothing. It had heavy support from Rengo, the power trade union federation whose key member unions are in the nuclear energy and electricity sectors.
Negligence, cover-up and falsification of data were routinely used to keep nuclear incidents away from public eye: in 2002, some 10 odd nuclear electricity companies were found to have been involved in such corruption or cover up of incidents dating 1970. Tepco, the owner and operator of the Fukushima plant, was one of the main accused and its officials had to resign. Between 2005 and 2009, there were over a dozen incidents in Fukushima. But the Japanese establishment imposed its preference for an invisible crisis management.
Japan and France have an interlocking nuclear connection. As far back as in the 1970s, the Japanese nuclear power utilities began shipping their spent fuel to France, to be reprocessed at Areva’s plant in La Hague (France is the principal stakeholder in Areva), and since 1999, France has been sending MOX—that is, mixed oxyde fuel—supplies to Japan. France has supported Japan’s nuclear programmes, especially building the reprocessing facility in Honshu. According to Areva, four of the 55 nuclear reactors in Japan function with MOX fuel, including one in Fukushima.
For long years, there has been a controversy over the safe use of MOX fuel in nuclear reactors. In May 2001, Greenpeace filed a case on the dangers of using MOX fuel supplied by Areva in the Fukushima reactor No 3.
However, the nuclear technocrats’ lobby is no less powerful in France than it is in Japan: in the early 1970s it imposed, without public debate, a nuclear energy economy in France that was developed at breathtaking pace in less than 15 years. Manufacture of pro-nuclear public opinion is big business particularly since it is the tax payer who pays for France’s nuclear electricity. Just this year, Areva spent 15 million euros on TV spots.
France in Damage Control over Fukushima
EVER since the Fukushima nuclear disaster struck on March 11, 2011, Tepco, the Japanese and French authorities and Areva, albeit slowly forced to admit the gravity of the situation, are doing their best to protect the nuclear energy sector from economic and political consequences. Sarkozy, the first head of state to visit Japan after the nuclear accident, took this occasion to publicly reaffirm his faith in the safety and pertinence of the nuclear option, and especially in the EPR reactors made by Areva, while the CEO of Areva who accompanied him had earlier stated publicly that ‘Fukushima was not a nuclear catastrophe’.
In sheer contradiction with these statements are the following facts: Areva evacuated its German employees in charge of the maintenance of Fukushima on the very next day of the accident ( March 12); France immediately called a Cabinet meeting to discuss strategies to protect the nuclear industry and its sales of nuclear plants to China, India, Libya, etc; the magistrate in charge for long years of a court case against the inaction and disinformation of the French authorities regarding the 1986 radioactive clouds from Chernobyl was all of a sudden evicted from handling the case; nuclear authorities have launched an information blitz, with daily press conferences for the past two weeks to counter growing public concern about the nuclear sector.
Dancing French Nuclear Can-Can will come at a Heavy Price
FRANCE signed a major contract with the Indian Government for a purchase of six EPR reactors for a nuclear plant site in Jaitapur in Maharashtra; given the extraordinarily large quantity of plutonium content needed in reactor fuel for the EPRs, they are possibly the most dangerous nuclear reactors.
India’s nukedom present the French nuclear industry as a model. There is a not so bright side that the Indians should know before they proceed to take the nuclear road with French involvement.
As elsewhere, there is an uncanny silence in France around nuclear matters. Decision-making elites are pro-nuclear, so are practically all MPs, regional or local elected bodies and all political formations from Left to Right to Centre, as well as interest groups that include mainstream media, consumers’ organisations and major national trade unions—even the communist CGT union which is a key actor in the nuclear energy plant operator EDF. This explains why citizens in France are still so ill-informed regarding health hazards.
However, as most nuclear plants in France are now old and subsequently present a higher risk of radioactive contamination for the 30,000 workers of the nuclear sector, the nuclear plant operators have massively turned towards sub-contracting the highly dangerous tasks involving repair, maintenance and modifications, thereby escaping the strict health and safety norms; today, subcontractors maintain 80 per cent of the French nuclear industry as opposed to 50 per cent in the 1970s. With privatisation, France now faces workers protesting the erosion of their rights and the increased dangers and risks to public safety when the time cycle of tasks is reduced.
Nuclear France is a water guzzling machine: state owned EDF withdraws up to 19 billion cubic metres of water per year from rivers and lakes, that is, roughly half of the fresh water drawn in the country. While the average Indian nuclear reactors are about 200 MW in size, the proposed French EPRs are 1500 MW and will consume even more water.
Additionally, there are problems with the waters used for cooling reactors, since it hotter when released back into the water sources. These problems increase in hot weather: during the heat wave that affected France in 2003, 17 nuclear power reactors had to be scaled back in operation or turned off, because of the rapid rise in rivers or lakes temperature that would have affected wild life fauna and flora. What will happen in India, where the weather conditions are much hotter?
France had nearly 200 uranium mines that are now all shut. But over 160 million tonnes of nuclear residue from the mines were disposed off and given away to the construction and building industry to be used as land leveling: there are stadiums, parking areas, roads, town-ships that have used this radioactive residue and people who live on it do not know.
Today, France imports uranium from its former African colonies, mostly Niger, and the ecological and social costs are hidden, as Areva which runs mines in Niger does not maintain epidemio-logical health records of communities in the mining regions.
Although France pretends that nuclear energy guarantees the country’s energy independence, securing continued access to these crucial resources has obvious consequences on France’s foreign policy and on its eventual military presence in Africa. Trouble has been brewing uranium mining areas in Niger. The recent kidnapping and assassination of two Areva engineers in Niger point at the fragility of this ‘independence’.
The numerous nuclear incidents and accidents that occured in France have been underplayed: in 1969, in Saint Laurent des Eaux, Loire et Cher, there was partial fusion of 50 kg of uranium, and the same accident happened again in the same plant in 1980 when 20 pounds of radioactive fuel melted. Some 400 EDF employees were sent to clean the site, but since then EDF has decided to call on the sub-contractors of such risky interven-tions. Similarly on December 27, 1999, the Blayais nuclear plant near the city of Bordeaux was struck by the storm Martin, followed by a flood; the plant was surrounded by water and cut off from the world for 13 hours, with 50 employees. 3 of the 4 reactors were considered lost.
In 2008, a uranium leak contaminated 100 workers in Tricastin: a documentary film RAS Nucleaire records inspectors being told to ignore malfunctions, employees hiding incidents for fear of sanctions, work teams feeling no longer responsible due to growing externalisation of tasks point to growing risks for collective security.
‘Small’ incidents have multiplied, with about 100 level one alerts a year, but the soft pro-nuclear propaganda makes risky industry acceptable. In India too, there is an accepted culture of post-hazard compensation rather than risk prevention. Bhopal still stares in our face.
Warnings have been addressed to the French authorities: an EDF study states that the back up generators of 19 reactors are at risk of malfunction, scientists alerted that 16 reactors are at serious risks of flooding, Paris’ police headquarters claim that there are no plans in place to protect people in case of an accident in a nuclear plant while seven sites comprising 18 reactors are within a radius of 225 km, the group Sortir du Nucleaire revealed that in 2007 EDF falsified the seismic data so as not to have to undertake expensive upgradation work, etc.
France did not solve the problem of nuclear waste storage: its waste was and is largely still sent to the former Soviet Union. A project of storage in Burne was opposed by the population.
But the La Hague Reprocessing Plant, in Normandy, is functioning: it reprocesses reactor fuel. MOX (mixed oxide fuel) is made from reprocessing spent fuel; and contains a very high degree of plutonium and this reprocessing results in massive releases by factors of several thousands compared to radioactive releases from nuclear reactors, of radioactive gases and liquids and the creation of solid waste. So-called low level wastes are discharged into the English Channel and into the air, while they often contain highly radioactive and long lived isotopes, in violation of the 1970 London Dumping Convention. Discharges from the La Hague as well as the UK Sellafield reprocessing plants resulted in contaminating beaches and seas as far as the Artic Circle. Two independent medical studies found elevated rates of leukemia among young people living around La Hague and similarly around Sellafield. The sea around La Hague has been measured 17 million times more radioactive than normal sea water. La Hague routinely releases a highly toxic radioactive gases including concentrationq of krypton-85 found at levels 90 000 times higher than in nature. Some 83 metric tons of plutonium is stored in La Hague, making it a very dangerous location.
French Anti-Nuclear Voices
WHILE France does not allow the public to make an informed opinion regarding the health and ecological costs of the nuclear energy option, small but vocal organisations campaign for transparency and alert public opinion. Among them are 700 groups that are part of the network Sortir du Nucleaire, the Observatoire du Nucleaire, the citizen’s independant nuclear lab CRIIRAD that was set in response to the Chernobyl disaster, Greenpeace France, ACDN. Working against huge odds, they face witchhunts and intimidation of activists, court cases filed against them, breaking into their offices, thefts of their computers and computer surveillance. People seem to have forgotten the 1985 the French secret service bombed and sunk the ship Rainbow warrior (belonging to Greenpeace) in distant New Zealand.
The extraordinarily high quality of public documentation generated by these groups on the dark underside of the French nuclear programme merits emulation by others internationally.
AFTER Fukushima and on the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the ‘business as usual’ ways of the nuclear establishment should not go unchallenged. The 1959 accord between the IAEA and WHO has to be revoked for the WHO to independently monitor and engage in public research over health and safety long term effects of Fukushima. The 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety must be revised giving high powers to the IAEA to conduct safety checks on all functioning nuclear power reactors across the globe, till they are decommissioned.
As the tight official wraps over nuclear matters prevent credible independent information, the Indian civil society must demand a full scale independent review of the unaccountable ways of its nuclear energy sector and a moratorium on all reactor construction. India’s nuclear industry be made to come under the purview of the Central Information Commission. A parliamentary committee must call for a full hearing on safety of India’s nuclear installations, including uranium mines and radioactive waste storage and transport activities. Misleading declarations of Indian public servants in wake of the Fukushima accident should be challenged in court by citizens groups.
(The author is an independent commentator who was till recently based in France.)