February 22, 2003: 3:15pm Univ. Reactors explode at 48.8 degrees Centigrade
The worst heatwave to strike Europe since the end of World War II vanished at the end of August, leaving in its wake thousands of deaths and an enormous amount of public outrage.
In France, much of the blame has been placed on the government's health service, which lacked the facilities, equipment, and personnel to care for the many elderly citizens who became the heatwave's victims.
As the casualties of August were buried, little was said about another sobering fact. The heatwave revealed a dangerous flaw in France's vast system of nuclear power plants, a deficiency that could have brought the country to the brink of catastrophe.
Temperatures soaring to more than 100 degrees for more than a week at the beginning of August strained electrical systems all over France. Seventy-five percent of the country's electricity is generated from nuclear power plants. As demand for power rose with the heat, the system quickly reached its limit..
Nuclear plants are usually located on riverbanks or by the ocean to take advantage of the availability of cooling water for the reactors. In France, all but four of the country's 58 nuclear power plants are situated on riverbanks. By the beginning of the second week in August, the French power company Electricité de France (EDF) said the extremely hot weather and lack of rainfall had severely reduced supplies of river water with temperatures low enough to sufficiently cool reactors. The implications were clearly unsettling.
A reactor that can't be cooled is a reactor out of control.
According to David Lochbaum, an expert on nuclear plant safety with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a water-cooled reactor needs cool water. "If the water temperature of the river gets too high, the ability of the plant to reconvert back to water the steam it has generated to run the turbines is impaired. The steam isn't sucked out of the turbine, and the pressure inside the turbine tends to go up."
In addition, temperature levels inside the buildings that house the reactors were reportedly rising dangerously. By law, nuclear plants in France must shut down operations if the temperature inside reaches 50 degrees centigrade (122 degrees Fahrenheit). The temperature limit is in place to protect the instruments that control the reactor and also to contain the potentially serious hazards in the event of a malfunction.
"The plants are designed so that if an accident occurs, there are systems in place to mitigate it so that the radiation doesn't get out to the public," said David Lochbaum. "If the temperature in the building gets too hot, the electrical equipment starts to fail, and that failure can be very unpredictable. It could impact the ability of the plant to contain the reactor and withstand the consequences of an accident. Once a building gets to 50 degrees [centigrade] the reactor should be shut down.
It's not a very forgiving technology."
The gravity of the situation became evident when EDF revealed that it had begun experimenting with jury-rigged garden sprinklers to hose down the exterior shell of a hot reactor building on an old plant in the Alsasce region. According to reports, the plant had already reached 48.8 degrees
As the days passed, a breakdown in the country's health care system for the elderly turned the energy shortage deadly. Hundreds of aged people were being brought to emergency rooms, many on the verge of death from dehydration or heat exhaustion. Hospitals were short of beds and lacked air conditioning. A shortage of medical personnel, due to the August vacation period and the country's new 35 hour-a-week work law, made adequate care impossible.
The evening news showed old people unattended at hospitals, huddling in front of electric fans. The nation's morgues soon began to overflow. Refrigerated trucks were called in and tents were set up to cope with the growing number of deaths. The largest impromptu morgue was reportedly the 4,000-meter (yard) food warehouse in a market in the Val-de-Marne region.
EDF officials realized that they might soon be faced with a horrifying choice: either begin shutting down the nation's 58 reactors and jeopardize the health of millions of other sick and elderly people or risk possible nuclear accidents.
Within days, the minister of the environment, Roselynne Bachelot, and other officials were publicly pleading with citizens to reduce their consumption of electricity. The EDF announced that periodic cuts in electric supply would likely begin the following week.
As if this wasn't enough, EDF had another problem. The water used for cooling nuclear plant reactors is discharged back into the river, lake, or ocean from which it came. Environmental rules in France limit the temperature of discharged water in order to protect aquatic plant and animal life. Most newer nuclear facilities employ the familiar large towers which help cool the used water before discharge. EDF realized that the water it was pumping back into rivers from many of its older plants was getting too hot, and it requested permission to exceed mandated temperature restrictions.
On Aug. 11, the government agreed to allow the temperature dispensation. This immediately raised the ire of French environmentalists, many of whom are trying to push the government away from its reliance on nuclear power and toward a future based on sustainable energy.
"If the summers to come are like 2003, as many studies have predicted, our nuclear system will have other heatwaves to deal with," said Yann Wherling, national spokesperson for The Green Party in France. "Are we announcing today that we will have to save water every year to spray down our reactors and that each summer our rivers will be massacred by heated wastewater?"
The French anti-nuclear-power group Sortir de Nucléaire called the relaxation of temperature restrictions "a scandal enacted with the sole aim of protecting the nuclear power industry."
The myth of the viability of nuclear power generation has collapsed under the heatwave," said Stéphane L'homme, spokesman for Sortir de Nucléaire. "In France we have been told that we are very fortunate to have our system of nuclear plants because other countries are dependent on oil, subject to price hikes and supply difficulties in time of conflict. Now we can envision a scenario where we have no electricity across the entire country. Now we can all see the truth that nuclear power is fragile and very fallible."
In an article in Le Monde, L'homme underscored a number of hazards in allowing overheated wastewater to enter rivers, including decimation of fish populations and the proliferation of algae and potentially dangerous micro-organisms.
Stéphane Pissavin, an environmental manager with the Reserve Naturelle de
l'ile de la platière, a nature preserve in the Isère region, said studies they have conducted on the Rhône River near the St. Albans power plant show the harmful consequences warm water dumping can have on river ecosystems.
"The Rhône has already been damaged from the higher temperatures caused by damming the river over the last 20 years, and we have seen the negative effects heated water can have on fish populations and aquatic plants. We know that when the temperature exceeds 18 degrees (64 F), salmon begin dying. When a nuclear plant throws water back in the river at 27 to 29 degrees (80.5-84.2 F) the salmon's day is over."
In Germany, where nuclear power accounts for about one-third of the country's energy production, restrictions were also relaxed, allowing wastewater temperatures to rise to 30 degrees (86 F) German environmentalists, while also opposed to the dispensation, have less to worry about than their French counterparts. The government of German chancellor Gerhardt Schroder, which is largely composed of Social Democrats and Greens, decided recently to phase out nuclear power in Germany.
According to nuclear power foes in France, their government's answer to problems with the nuclear power industry is more nuclear power.
Before the current crisis, France was preparing to bring online the first in a new series of reactors, purported to be more powerful and more efficient. Some of the older plants still functioning date back to the early 1960s when Charles de Gaulle, intent on securing the country's strategic and economic foundations during the Cold War, made nuclear power a national model for modernity. The current government has said it plans to eventually install 40 of the new plants around the country. Critics say this move would commit France to nuclear power for the next century.
More reactors, however new, may merely compound the problem. According to UCS's Lochbaum, the people who designed pressurized water reactor power plants based their systems on historical temperature data rather than anticipating an increasingly warmer climate.
"What we are seeing now are unusually sustained high temperatures that are out of the data set when these plants were built," said Lochbaum. "Had that been realized originally, they might have designed systems, other than dumping overheated water or spraying the outside of containment buildings, to deal with the problems."
Like their predecessors, the new plants France wants to install were not designed for the possibility of having to accommodate prolonged periods of hot weather and drought. What may electric utilities like EDF do to make their nuclear plants better able to cope with a warmer climate in the future? About half of the nuclear plants currently in use in France employ the more efficient cooling tower system. Simply adding towers, however, may not be the answer.
In France, adding new towers, especially in the agricultural areas where many plants are located, would almost certainly meet with public opposition.
"A lot of people are afraid of the image of the towers and what they represent," said a spokesperson for Sortir de Nuclèaire. "In Alsasce, an important wine-making region, people defending agriculture would object strongly."
Aside from public disapproval, the tower system also has practical drawbacks, according to Dr. Gordon Thompson, executive director of the Institute for Resource and Security Studies (IRSS) in the United States.
"The problem with the cooling towers is, although you isolate the heat from the nearby water body, you still have to suck up a lot of water from that body and put it into the atmosphere," Thompson said. "You actually end up needing to use more water than the direct ejection method, and if the river levels are low, you still have a problem."
The EDF said in its statement on the crisis that it had to authorize a rise in river temperature limits at a number of nuclear facilities that already have cooling towers, including plants on the Garonne, the Rhône, the Moselle, and the Seine rivers.
One method the nuclear industry has employed to address water supply problems has been to build artificial lakes specifically designed to service power plants. Adding lakes or retrofitting the plants themselves are clearly expensive undertakings, especially for a country like France, which has been facing difficult economic times.
France has already been chastised by the European Commission for having the highest budget deficit of all the countries of the European Union. The government of Prime Minister Raffarin has enacted controversial austerity policies, cut taxes, and begun to put public utilities like EDF on the auction block in an attempt to salvage a struggling economy.
"If energy conservation was practiced and green technologies utilized, we could change the whole situation," said Stephane L'homme. "If we focus on renewable energy sources and eliminate waste, we could cut our consumption of energy in half."
Sortir Nucléaire maintains that the French government has no real interest in conservation and called its appeal to civic duty during the heatwave hypocritical. The Chirac government recently decided to reduce funding for the agency in charge of developing energy-saving initiatives by 40 percent.
"The government has actually been encouraging consumption to support the rationale for new reactors and because it plans on privatizing EDF," said L'homme. "It wants the best price it can get at the stock exchange, and the French people could end up paying for it for the next hundred years."
In its statements to the press, EDF has said it has instituted a comprehensive program of monitoring waterways effected by the crisis, utilizing a distinguished team of experts in river ecology, hydrology, and other related fields. Its preliminary assessment states that the temperature dispensations have thus far resulted in no observable damage to the fauna or flora of rivers.
To what extent does the French experience represent a wakeup call for the nuclear power industry in the United States other countries?
"The United States hasn't designed its plants to accommodate the possibility of long heatwaves and drought, so there may indeed be lessons to learn," said IRSS's Thompson. "But our government [the United States] doesn't believe there is going to be climate change."
The antinuclear forces in France are calling for a complete phasing out of nuclear power, the adoption of a credible plan to control energy consumption, and a national commitment to develop renewable energy technologies. If this long, hot summer was any indication, a healthy future may lie in solar panels.
Paul Schwartz is an American journalist and editor who writes on politics and the environment for The French News, an English-language monthly newspaper published in southwestern France.
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Sortir de Nucléaire Institute for Resource and Security Studies
Electricité de France
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What we learned from the Chernoble Problem
Radiation levels in the Ukraine increased over three years before returning to May 1986 levels.
As we learned from the Chernoble accident, we can expect, then measured high radioactivity in livestock to increase six months after the initial fall-out. If the initial weather conditions were rain when the plume reached other cities and nations, the levels of radioactive caesium in livestock will continue to increase in those areas.
Obviously, not all localities are measured for fall-out, and some
areas will be entirely missed (especially in the countryside) and
people who live there left in ignorance.
What we have learned is we should be on our guard if it rains
heavily at a time when the radioactive cloud is somewhere in the
If there is contaminated air in the vicinity, we should not go outside,
nor drink rainwater, and not go for a swim. Animals must be
sheltered and kept inside for many weeks. This reduces the exposure
to short-lived radio-isotopes like iodine-131. Contamination of
winter feed will be a problem in Germany where fall-out has
contaminated the summer supply of wheat and feed.
Wild vegetation tends to be more efficient at concentrating
radioactive material than well-fertilized domestic crops. Game
animals that live on these plants are likely to have higher levels of
radioactivity compared with domestic ones.
Some buildings are more effective in shielding us from radiation
than are others. The best protection is found in an air-tight
building, concrete blocks or apartments. The traditional wooden
structures are less protective. If you live in the Alsacian vicinity, you might move to a prefabricated air tight home.
Filters in an air cleaning system will have to be replaced following a radioactive event, and care must be taken when changing and
disposing of the contaminated filters. If iodine tablets were not issued, uptake of radio iodine may be lessed by consuming kelp.
The main task after a major radiation release should not be to hose
down vehicles, roads, buildings, because that only disperses the
particles into the soil; the main task is to confine the contamination
and dispose of it at a safe site.
When the source of decontamination is closed and secured, the task of collecting fall-out begins. The Soviets sprayed a light, sticky plastic film over the surface
of the ground, which was later gathered and disposed. The first few centimeters of topsoil have to be
taken to a secure landfill site. Buildings can be coated with special paint, and roads may be tarred
to bind radioactive fallout for collection and disposal.
What happened at Chernoble?