Let the facts speak: an indictment of the nuclear industry

On March 11, 2012, the anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam released the fourth edition of Let the Facts Speak: An Indictment of the Industry.

The publication − online at https://nuclear.foe.org.au/wp-content/uploads/LTFS-full-report-published-2012.pdf − includes a 150-page catalogue of nuclear accidents and incidents since the 1940s.

The publication also includes − in a separate paper online at https://nuclear.foe.org.au/wp-content/uploads/LTFS-DD-published.pdf − an analysis of nuclear risks covering issues such as reactor ageing, the uncomfortable intersection between economics and nuclear safety, regulation, ‘Generation IV’ reactors, and the debate over the risks of exposure to low-level ionising radiation.

The publication also includes a ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of some of the most dangerous and infamous moments in the history of the nuclear industry. It includes some major reactor accidents − Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Windscale. Three entries address non-reactor accidents − the Chelyabinsk liquid nuclear waste explosion in the Soviet Union, the theft of a radiotherapy source in Brazil and subsequent fatalities, and the fatal accident at a fuel fabrication plant at Tokaimura, Japan.

One entry concerns the failure to account for 160 kgs of plutonium for a period of at least eight months at the Sellafield plant in the UK. That was just one of many incidents at the same site, including a 1957 reactor fire, a data falsification scandal and a serious sabotage incident in the late 1990s, and international controversy over the routine emissions from nuclear fuel reprocessing operations.

The Superphenix fast breeder reactor in France is included in the Dirty Dozen list as an example of a nuclear ‘white elephant’ − a plant that failed spectacularly to meet its promised performance levels with billions of dollars wasted in the process (other such examples include reprocessing and fuel fabrication plants at Sellafield). Superphenix also provides a reminder that some of the ‘next generation’ nuclear power technologies that are now being promoted as ‘new’ and ‘safe’ are in fact old and unsafe.

Several entries − including Three Mile Island, Fukushima and Tokaimura − demonstrate the industry’s failure to learn from past accidents.

The Dirty Dozen list includes an example of strikes on a nuclear plant directed by a national government (Israel’s destruction of the Osiraq research reactor in Iraq) and strikes against a nuclear power plant by a sub-national group (Basque ETA terrorists). Those two entries are reproduced here.

Bombing and destruction of reactor in Iraq

On 7 June 1981, Israeli fighter planes destroyed the French-supplied ‘Osiraq’ (or ‘Osirak’ or ‘Tammuz 1’) 40 MW research reactor located at the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Centre, 17 kms from Baghdad.

Ten Iraqi soldiers and one French civilian were killed in the attack, and three Israeli army personnel died during training for the mission. Other than those deaths, the attack was of little public health or environmental consequence as the reactor had not begun operating and had not been loaded with nuclear fuel.

The significance of the attack (and surrounding events) was that it so starkly demonstrated the realpolitik of nuclear weapons proliferation − Iraq’s pursuit of weapons under cover of a ‘peaceful’ nuclear program and Israel’s willingness to respond with a ‘pre-emptive’ military strike.

The safeguards system of the International Atomic Energy Agency was put to the test and was found wanting. IAEA inspections failed to uncover Iraq’s weapons program and other research reactors were later found to have been used in various ways to advance Iraq’s weapons program. Israel clearly had no faith in the IAEA safeguards system as demonstrated by its attack on Osiraq (and more recently with its attack on a suspected reactor site in Syria in 2007).

In April 1979, Israeli agents in France allegedly planted a bomb that damaged the partially-built Osiraq reactor while it was awaiting shipment to Iraq. Israel is also alleged to have murdered a scientist working on Iraq’s nuclear program in June 1980 and to have bombed several of the French and Italian companies it suspected of working on the project.

The Iranian military also attacked and damaged the Al Tuwaitha Nuclear Centre with air strikes on September 30, 1980, shortly after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, and both Iran and Iraq attempted military strikes on nuclear plants on other occasions during the 1980-88 war. Al Tuwaitha was bombed during the 1991 Gulf war and yet again during the 2003 Gulf war. More recently, Israel destroyed a suspected reactor site in Syria in 2007.

The above examples have been motivated by attempts to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation. Nuclear plants might also be targeted with the aim of widely dispersing radioactive material or, in the case of power reactors, disrupting electricity supply.

Reprocessing plants and stores for spent nuclear fuel and high-level nuclear waste typically contain enormous quantities of highly radioactive materials in readily dispersible forms, and are more vulnerable to attacks than reactors as they are generally less well protected.

Terrorist attacks on Spanish power reactor

On 18 December 1977, Basque ETA separatists set off bombs damaging the reactor vessel and a steam generator at the Lemoniz nuclear power plant under construction in Spain. Two workers died and one of the terrorists sustained fatal injuries.

On 17 March 1978, ETA planted another bomb in the plant, again causing the death of two workers and inflicting substantial damage to the plant. The explosives were smuggled into the plant by site workers.

On 3 June 1979, an anti-nuclear activist was killed by police during a peaceful protest (the peaceful public movement against Lemoniz attracted as many as 150,000 people to protest rallies).

On 13 June 1979, ETA planted another bomb inside the plant and the explosion caused the death of one worker.

On 11 November 1979, ETA kidnapped guards and exploded bombs at another nuclear plant, causing extensive damage.

On 29 January 1981, ETA kidnapped the chief engineer of the Lemoniz nuclear plant and later killed him.

ETA also destroyed hundreds of electricity pylons connected to the site.

In 1983, the Spanish nuclear power expansion program was cancelled following a change of government and construction of the Lemoniz plant was never completed.

Dozens of incidents of nuclear terrorism have taken place around the world, with a bewildering variety of perpetrators and motives. To date there has not been an incident resulting in mass casualties. However then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned in 2005:

“Nuclear terrorism is still often treated as science fiction. I wish it were. But, unfortunately, we live in a world of excess hazardous materials and abundant technological know-how, in which some terrorists clearly state their intention to inflict catastrophic casualties. Were such an attack to occur, it would not only cause widespread death and destruction, but would stagger the world economy and thrust tens of millions of people into dire poverty.”

There are frequent reports of inadequate security at nuclear plants. In November 2005, for example, a reporter and photographer were able to park a one-tonne van for more than 30 minutes outside the back gate of the Lucas Heights nuclear site without being challenged. The gate, 800 metres from the research reactor, was protected by a simple padlock. The Australian reported: “The back door to one of the nation’s prime terrorist targets is protected by a cheap padlock and a stern warning against trespassing or blocking the driveway.”