Security And Safety Risks At French Nuclear Reactors Exposed By Drones

Protest at Nuclear Power Station FessenheimAbout 60 Greenpeace activists from 14 countries protest this morning at Fessenheim (France) against the risk caused by ageing nuclear power plants in Europe. The activists from several European countries (France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Czech Republic, Sweden, Slovenia and Austria) and non-European countries (Australia, Turkey and Israel) have unfurled a banner next to reactor n°1 with the message "Stop Risking Europe". Other activists are on top of this reactor and on its pool. With barrels at the entrance and a banner at the building they demand the shutdown of the plant. The nuclear power station Fessenheim is an old plant and only 1 kilometer from the German border.03/18/2014 © Daniel Mueller / GreenpeaceFor the past two months, French nuclear facilities have been subjected to a new threat – the overflight of unidentified drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). As of 20th November, drones of various sizes have made 32 flights above and around 14 nuclear reactor sites.

Sites operated by Electricite de France (EdF), together with the plutonium nuclear fuel facilities at la Hague and Marcoule, the shutdown fast breeder reactor at Superphenix, and the research centre headquarters of the Atomic Energy Commission just outside Paris have all had visits from drones.

In just one evening on 31st October, seven separate nuclear sites across northern France were flown over by nine drones. Despite the deployment of radar systems with jamming technology, military pursuit helicopters and instructions from the Government to bring them down with shotguns, to date the drones have evaded all efforts to stop them.

Those responsible for the drone flights have yet to be identified. And it’s not Greenpeace.

For weeks, the French public have been exposed to daily media reports of yet another drone flight at yet another nuclear plant – and with 58 nuclear reactors they have been visually reminded that France does indeed have a lot of nuclear power. Bugey, Fessenheim, Cattenom, St Laurent, and the other nuclear reactor sites across the country have been given a media profile unheard of in decades.

The response from EdF has been almost complete silence, other than to file police complaints. The response from the Government has been to state that the drones don’t present a threat.

The silence and assurances are unacceptable, complacent and wrong.

In the last few days Greenpeace has begun the process of providing evidence of the new threats posed by drones and the need for urgent action. Two reports commissioned by us, and based on publicly available information, have investigated the security and safety implications of drone technology and nuclear power plants.

Yesterday, Greenpeace presented evidence to the French National Assembly Committee on Science and Technology (OPCEST) that shows the drone flights have exposed a major failure in nuclear plant security and safety.

Aerial shot of Cogema nuclear reprocessing plantAerial shot of Cogema nuclear reprocessing plant10/02/1997 © Greenpeace / Pierre Gleizes

A report commissioned by Greenpeace France from independent nuclear engineering consultancy Large & Associates has been sent to the head of France’s nuclear safety agency (ASN), and senior members of the government responsible for security. The research reveals that vital safety functions of a nuclear power plant are vulnerable to direct drone attack. Due to the detailed analysis in this report and the highly sensitive nature of the debate in France at present, Greenpeace has chosen not to release it.

Today, Greenpeace Germany has released a report by nuclear physicist Oda Becker from Bremen, that provides a broader overview of the role drones could play in supporting an armed attack against nuclear reactors, with a specific focus on those reactors on the French border with Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Germany.

The analysis shows that drones could play a critical role in assisting with a deliberate armed attack that could lead to a major accident and release of radioactivity.

Of particular concern are the reactor spent fuel pools that hold hundreds of tons of highly radioactive waste removed from the nuclear reactor core. For reactors of the same design and vintage as at Fessenheim, designed in the 1960s and operating since 1977, the spent fuel building is particularly vulnerable, being little more than the equivalent of a commercial warehouse.

The buildings contain the equivalent of many nuclear reactors worth of radioactivity. The average nuclear reactor contains 80-100 tons of irradiated nuclear fuel – currently France has around 4000 tons of spent fuel in its reactor pools and 10,000 tons in the la Hague storage pools.

As the Fukushima accident showed, and as the then Prime Minister Naoto Kan warned and plant manager Yoshida believed – a major accident at a spent fuel pool threatens the very future of your nation.

The fact that Fessenheim is on the German border and a resulting accident could contaminate large swathes of German cities and countryside is one reason that there have been longstanding demands from across the border for the plant to be shutdown. The drone flights over Fessenheim will only intensify those demands.

Its worth noting that the first German Atomic Law, adopted in 2002, that initiated the phase out of nuclear power, was in part based on evidence that nuclear plants are vulnerable to terrorist attack.

Clearly the French government have yet to reach that point of understanding.

Superphenix nuclear Fast Breeder reactor, Creys-Malville, France.01/01/1996 © Greenpeace

One problem when you have a lot of nuclear reactors is that you also have a lot of highly radioactive spent fuel – in the case of France, thousands of tons. The drone flights have worsened an already existing safety crisis at French nuclear plants. Only this last summer, and before the drone flights began, ASN instructed EdF to present plans on the construction of hardened bunkers over their vulnerable spent fuel pools.

As with many required improvements in the safety EdF reactors, they have yet to respond. New requirements to take account of the lessons of Fukushima are similarly being resisted by EdF, with plans already years behind schedule.

One of the first duties of a government is surely to protect the safety and well being of its citizens. Successive French governments have mistakenly chosen to prioritise the interests of the nuclear industry instead. Where has that got them?

Today, the French nuclear industry is in crisis: AREVA, the state owned plutonium and reactor vendor, is near bankrupt. EdF, already loaded with billions of euros in debt is confronted with having to find tens of billions more to invest in its reactor fleet that is rapidly ageing. And now drones.

For decades Greenpeace has warned that the safety and security risks posed by French reactors and nuclear spent fuel should not be ignored. Will the drone issue finally force some action? Clearly, reassurances that everything is fine and there is no threat, is taking the head in the sand approach to nuclear safety to a new level of farce.

In submitting its evidence to the French authorities, Greenpeace has also issued a series of demands and recommendations, including:

  • Closing the gaps in regulation, where the nuclear safety regulator has no responsibility for security despite the fact that it relates directly to safety.
  • That EdF should be required to construct hardened bunkers over its spent fuel pools as a matter of urgency, and in the meantime should move as much fuel as possible from the pools into dry cask storage reducing the risks of loss of cooling function at the site.

The broader context of the new Energy Law for reducing the share of nuclear generated electricity from 76% to 50% by 2025, provides further rationale for reducing safety and security risks by shutting down its older reactors as soon as possible.

Of course the implications go way beyond France. Nuclear power technology, conceived, designed and developed from the mid-20th century onwards has run slap bang into a 21st century technology that is capable of inflicting serious damage and potentially causing a major nuclear accident.

While French authorities have been scrambling and failing to find answers, we are pretty sure that their equivalents in the rest of Europe, at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and beyond are scratching their heads and wondering what is to be done. That they never planned for this is obvious but no excuse.

Nuclear power was not safe and secure before the age of drones, but it’s even less so now. Where German society understood and accepted that the risks were just not worth it, the rest of the nuclear world needs to urgently play catch up. In terms of the future? “Drones pose safety and security threat to solar energy” is a headline you are unlikely ever to read.

Shaun Burnie is a senior nuclear campaigner with Greenpeace Germany

[Images: Protest at Nuclear Power Station Fessenheim 03/18/2014 © Daniel Mueller / Greenpeace. Aerial shot of Cogema nuclear reprocessing plant 10/02/1997 © Greenpeace / Pierre Gleizes. Superphenix nuclear Fast Breeder reactor, Creys-Malville, France.01/01/1996 © Greenpeace]

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