One of life’s hard-to-believe moments: Drilling holes in a nuclear reactor

Switzerland‘s cheese is famous for its holes and now one of the country’s nuclear reactors is infamous for the same reason.

Greenpeace projects the slogan 'Atomkraft? - Nein Danke' translated in English: 'Nuclear Energy? - No thanks' on the cooling tower of the nuclear power plant in Leibstadt.03/25/2011 © Greenpeace / Christian Schmutz

I don’t know about you but I’m terrible at home improvements and DIY. Ask me to hang a picture on the wall and the picture will be crooked. Ask me to put up shelves and books will fall off them.

If in doubt, ask an expert. That’s my motto.

Which makes me wonder what contractors at Switzerland’s Leibstadt Nuclear Power Plant were thinking when they drilled holes in the reactor’s primary containment in order to mount fire extinguishers.

Who was the expert who gave the go-ahead for this piece of potentially catastrophic stupidity? Who had this bright idea?

Here’s how it went. On June 24 this year six 6mm holes were discovered by chance in the containment vessel of the nuclear plant that, by the way, is on the border with Germany. They had been drilled right through the 3.8cm-thick steel wall that’s meant to keep all the horrible radioactivity inside the reactor core from escaping. .

If that wasn’t bad enough, the plant’s operator admitted that they were drilled in 2008.

That’s right. Six holes in the Leibstadt nuclear reactor went unnoticed for six years!

The holes have thankfully now been filled, which is a temporary solution approved by the Swiss nuclear regulator ENSI.

So we’re left with a number of questions.

Firstly, how did ENSI not notice six holes in the reactor’s containment for six years?

We’re not talking about microscopic cracks in the steel, which can go undetected. We’re talking about holes big enough for red fire extinguishers to hang from one of the most vital parts of the reactor’s safety system. And yet 500 inspections have been made by ENSI at Leibstadt since 2008.

Secondly, ENSI says the Leibstadt reactor can stay in operation until a permanent fix is found. This permanent fix must be in place by this week or the reactor will be shut down. This makes no sense.

If the problem is serious enough that the reactor must be shut down if a permanent fix isn’t found, why wasn’t it shut down when the holes where first discovered? It’s an unacceptable concession to the energy companies that own Leibstadt.

As we’ve seen all over the world, this is about putting the profits of the nuclear industry before the safety of people and the environment.

The irony of this is that ENSI likes to present itself as a champion of nuclear safety and regulatory policies*. That image is ruined by the incompetence at Leibstadt. As our nuclear campaigner in Switzerland Florian Kasser says, “ENSI has a kind of an arrogant habit of pretending ‘we in Switzerland do it better'”. Clearly not.

No nuclear reactor can ever be 100% safe. But even the most pro-nuclear person alive should tell you that allowing people to drill holes in them is not a good idea.

I won’t be letting a nuclear contractor hang my pictures or put up my shelves (or mount my fire extinguishers) any time soon. The only thing they could do is send me some Swiss cheese.

* I don’t want to single out ENSI and Leibstadt. You can find stupidity in the nuclear industry all over the world. This blog is a testament to that.

Image: Greenpeace projects the slogan ‘Atomkraft? – Nein Danke’ translated in English: ‘Nuclear Energy? – No thanks’ on the cooling tower of the nuclear power plant in Leibstadt. 03/25/2011. © Greenpeace / Christian Schmutz

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