EU nuclear stress tests and Ukraine

Oh dear.

Dear readers, as a qualified Radiation Protection Supervisor (courtesy of RWE Nukem and the excellent tuition of Mr Nick Trafford) not to mention a Civil Engineer who knows a little bit about steel and concrete by design (and default), I am slightly dubious of the EU “Stress Tests” for the civil nuclear industry on the continent.

As is always the case, the stress tests have been reached by consensus amongst the EU nations.  As is always the case that means the lowest common denominator has been reached which all to often is almost a complete waste of time and involves a lot of money.

Discounting Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland and Armenia there are just under 150 civil nuclear power plants in Europe.  Counting them it is way over 150.  As the plan is to “stress test” all nuclear facilities within the EU and actively encourage the neighbouring nations to do the same within the same parameters, that is a lot of “stress testing”.

The “stress tests”, such as they are,  require a re-assessment of the safety margins used in the licensing of European nuclear power plants, which is fair enough, but that is not a “stress test” simply a regulatory change.  There is also to be  checks relating to the ability to withstand a combination of natural disasters such as the earthquake and subsequent tsunami despite the fact Europe is not Japan.  If the Czech Republic was to be hit by a tsunami then a flood of Biblical proportions would have wiped out most of Europe.

What are the chances of the Czech Republic having had nuclear facilities designed to withstand a level 9 earthquake followed by a tsunami?

I will happily assert that Dungeness, Aldermaston, Sellafield and all those currently working or being decommissioned plants such as Trawsfynedd were not built to withstand a tsunami or a level 9 earthquake.  Why would that have even been a consideration in their design and build?  The chances of many of the EU civil atomic facilities passing this part of the test (if it is a genuine scientific test and not a whitewash) must be very low indeed with regards to a tsunami.

I am of course not the only person to have thought this, so the “stress tests” go on to state that “natural disasters” will include earthquakes, flooding, extreme heat or cold, snow, ice, storms, tornadoes and heavy rain, taking in to account the previous seismic and meteorological history of a particular location.  Far more realistic as far as the original parameters of any design and build of current or decommissioned reactors.

The “stress tests” will also include man-made failures and will include the ability of plants to withstand airplane crashes and explosions close to nuclear power plants.  I have little doubt that most will do OK with explosions close by, however aircraft crashing into a reactor building as per 9/11?  Undoubtedly no significant problem with a Sopwith Pup plummeting from the sky but an Airbus?  That means getting out the calculators and doing the math as to whether any existing concrete structure would withstand such an impact notwithstanding taking into consideration the decay of the concrete over time and exposure.  An opportunity to fudge some numbers ?

Further more, irrespective of the cause, power plants will have to prove that they have enough back-up power systems in place in case the power supply is cut for several days.  Whilst that is possibly already in place at certain facilities it probably isn’t at them all.  However, of all the “fixes” to the “stress test” it is certainly one of the easiest to remedy, although it will not be cheap.

Who is going to do all this?  Well the energy producers are, not Ensreg who are responsible for creating the “stress tests”.  Will RWE or Eon and any other nuclear power producers provide answers and statistics that show they will fail the tests?

To combat any such shenanigans, Enreg will then reply on the national regulators asking them if the answers given by the energy producers are “credible”.  That sounds like peer review to me.  We already know what to think of peer review:

Richard Horton, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet, has said that – “The mistake, of course, is to have thought that peer review was any more than a crude means of discovering the acceptability—not the validity—of a new finding. Editors and scientists alike insist on the pivotal importance of peer review. We portray peer review to the public as a quasi-sacred process that helps to make science our most objective truth teller. But we know that the system of peer review is biased, unjust, unaccountable, incomplete, easily fixed, often insulting, usually ignorant, occasionally foolish, and frequently wrong.”

Drummond Rennie, deputy editor of Journal of the American Medical Association remarks – “There seems to be no study too fragmented, no hypothesis too trivial, no literature too biased or too egotistical, no design too warped, no methodology too bungled, no presentation of results too inaccurate, too obscure, and too contradictory, no analysis too self-serving, no argument too circular, no conclusions too trifling or too unjustified, and no grammar and syntax too offensive for a paper to end up in print.”

Why do we think that peer review will be any better from the national regulators of the nuclear industry given the undoubted political and industry pressure they will be under to insure the lights do not go out?

What of terrorist threats?  They are not to be covered by the Ensreg “stress tests” as it does not fall within their area of competence.  Apparently that will be covered separately by a panel of national security advisors,  so we can only assume that the explosions and planes falling from the sky into reactors included in the “stress tests” are accidental occurrences and not deliberate.

Is there really any chance that the majority of existing atomic energy facilities will fail these tests even when they probably should if the tests are applied in an unbiased and scientific way?

What of the IAEA?  Should it not be they how set the “stress tests” for a global understanding?  What if the IAEA set a much more robust test than that which has been negotiated down to the lowest common denominator and is so open to pressure from national governments on their own particular results?

The EU neighbours are not members of Ensreg as they are not in the EU, but they are members of the IAEA.  Whilst Ukraine, firmly on an EU integration path will undoubtedly volunteer to take part in the Ensreg “stress tests”, others may not be willing.  An IAEA decree will be much more persuasive than an Ensreg request.

Business as usual will no doubt be the outcome for existing operations with new recommendations and regulations for those under design now…..maybe.

 

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