Austria makes formal objection to UK nuclear plans


   By a Newsnet reporter

The Austrian government has lodged a formal objection to the UK’s plans to develop a new nuclear power plant at the Hinkley Point site in Somerset.

According to the Austrian government’s environmental agency Umweltbundesamt, its experts believe that the plans for the new reactor do not provide the necessary guarantees to protect the public from a serious nuclear accident.

The Vienna agency’s 39-page submission concludes that the environmental impact assessment of the proposed Hinkley reactors “does not permit a meaningful assessment of the effects of conceivable accidents”.   According to the Umweltbundsamt, the UK goverment’s claim that the risk of a large release of radioactivity has been practically eliminated “is not sufficiently demonstrated”.

In their submission to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Austrian authorities say that the documents lodged with the UK government by the French company EDF, which is to construct the plant, do not cover all the potential risks, and do not discuss the possible effects of a catastrophic failure.

The Umweltbundsamt document states:

“Taking into account all the presented facts of the application documents, the preservation of the containment integrity neither in the long-term nor in the short-term is guaranteed by the proposed safety design and features.”

The Austrians fear that a catastropic release of caesium-137 in an accident at the new plant would contaminate Austrian agricultural lands to a level beyond the threshold which triggers restrictions on farming, rendering much of the country’s agriculture unviable.

The agency warns that severe accidents leading to massive releases of caesium-137 similar to those which followed the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 “cannot be excluded”.  The Austrians acknowledge that the probability of such an accident is low,  however the agency insists that such incidents should have been included in EDF’s assessment “since their effects can be widespread and long-lasting”.

In 1607 the Bristol Channel, where Hinkley Point is situated, experienced a devastating flood.  The site where the nuclear reactor is planned was inundated and covered by several metres by seawater.  Some historians and geologists believe that the event was caused by a tsunami resulting from an earthquake off the south west coast of Britain. 

The British Geological Survey suggested that as there is no evidence of a landslide off the continental shelf, a tsunami could have been caused by an earthquake on a known unstable fault off the south coast of Ireland, causing the vertical displacement of the sea floor.  The tsunami then funnelled into the Bristol Channel, which magnified its effects considerably.

Other experts believe that the floods were caused by a massive storm surge.  However irrespective of the cause of the 1607 flood, the UK government’s current risk assessment does not take into account the possibility that a similar flood may occur at Hinkley Point in the future.

The Fukushima disaster in Japan was caused when the plant was flooded by the tsunami which followed the March 11 2011 earthquake.  Although the plant was designed to withstand the earthquake, the reactor’s cooling system and back up system were destroyed by the incursion of seawater. 

The Japanese government ordered the evacuation of the entire population living within a 20 km radius of the plant.  People living between 20 and 30 km of the site were initially advised to stay indoors, and were evacuated in the following days.  Over 170,000 people were evacuated.  Two years after the event, over 60,000 people remain unable to return to their homes.

The Japanese government estimates that it will take around 40 years for the site to be properly decontaminated.