The potential threats surrounding nuclear science have been ebbing away at civilisation ever since the first atom was split. Of course, people didn’t have to wait particularly long to see the full extent of the destructive force on offer; the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were testament to that. In the decades that followed the deployment of the first atomic bomb, people on both sides of the Iron Curtain lived in constant fear that a gleaming missile could fall out of the sky at any time and end their world in an instant. Since the end of the Cold War, and the purported ‘end of history,’ people could be forgiven for hoping that the age of nuclear worry was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the nuclear threat continues to ebb as before, only now the threat is more likely to come from the ground than the skies.
Save maybe for those living in potentially volatile conflict zones in the Middle East and Korean Peninsula, most citizens of the world now live without the danger of imminent nuclear attack. However, the peaceful use of nuclear methods, particularly as a means of generating power but also for use in hospitals and other industries, continues to accelerate. It is the safety and security of such nuclear locations (and the safety and security of waste material created by such locations), combined with leftover waste from the Cold War years, which still pose a risk to Europe’s population.
Indeed, it is leftover nuclear waste that has thrown the issue of nuclear safety back into the spotlight. Last month Russia began to explore its old nuclear dump sites in the Kara Sea off the north coast of the country and located within the Arctic Circle. The move was in preparation for future oil and natural gas drilling in the region by energy companies Rosneft and Exxon Mobil. It goes without saying that the possibility of hitting an old nuclear dumping site has meant that both companies have ensured extensive surveys of the seabed have taken place. And, as a result, both are confident that they will be able to avoid an unfortunate incident involving any of the 17,000 containers containing nuclear waste, 19 vessels containing similar hazardous material or 5 dangerous nuclear reactors, all of which lie beneath the surface. However, these surveys haven’t stopped the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority (NRPA) speculating that there could be more sites in the region, and warning that further tests should be carried out.
This sort of uncertainty over nuclear waste and its whereabouts is precisely the sort of problem which authorities must work to counter. The Soviet Union was hardly famed for its transparency, and therefore the official records are unlikely to account for all nuclear waste generated. Even when governments know where the nuclear waste is, dealing with it effectively is extremely difficult if not impossible. As the European Commission points out, there is no existing final repository for high-level radioactive waste and spent fuel. In fairness to the European Commission, the technology may be lacking, but the impetus for an effective solution isn’t. On 19 July 2011 a Commission-proposed directive was adopted by the European Council, asking member governments to present national programmes on how they intend to deal with nuclear waste while maintaining the highest safety standards possible. Such transparency will have a hugely positive effect on the process of dealing with nuclear waste and would make a welcome change to the secrecy of the cold war: after all it is the population at large who face the greatest risks when it comes to radioactive disasters. This transparency has arguably already found its way into the nuclear policy of EU member states, shown by the recent referendum in Bulgaria on whether to open a new nuclear power plant. Despite the referendum being deemed inconclusive due to a low voter turnout, the fact that the decision was offered to the people is a step in the right direction.
Obviously there are other interests involved when nuclear power plants are being planned and built, especially the economy of the country involved. Nonetheless safety has to be paramount, and despite the positive moves from the Commission there are still concerns over the security of Europe’s nuclear sites. After Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the European Commission set-up a report into the ability of Europe’s nuclear sites to act in emergencies. The October 2012 report revealed grave concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants in the EU, declaring that almost all of them needed to undergo safety improvements. However, despite the damning findings, the EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger declared that “generally the situation is satisfactory,” and that the report merely highlighted that the EU was continuing to strive to the very highest standards.
And, as long as that is the case, then there can’t be much room for complaint. On the other hand, members of protest groups such as Greenpeace believe that the EU and national governments should be doing more, shutting down the oldest and therefore most risky plants before carrying out more rigorous testing on the remaining number. Whatever is the case for the future, nuclear safety is not something which should be left in the background to ebb away, rearing its ugly head every time there’s a Fukushima or Chernobyl: instead, it should be constantly at the forefront of European energy policy.