Listen to this article
Give us your feedback Thank you for your feedback.
What do you think?
The identification by external monitoring centres of an unexpected concentration of nuclear-related material in the air above Khazkhstan and across the region at the end of September was initially denied by the local and Russian authorities but has now been partially admitted in a statement from Roshydromet, the agency responsible for monitoring radiation in Russia. However, the source of the emission of ruthenium 106 ( a radioactive form of the rare heavy metal) has not been explained.
Given the history of the region, the absence of an explanation can only undermine confidence at a time in the industry when the future of nuclear power is already in doubt because of its cost. The authorities that control the plant at Mayak, owned by the Russian state company Rosatom, should come clean, and allow open international scrutiny.
Secrecy is the enemy of trust, and no part of the energy system is more vulnerable to both secrecy and mistrust than nuclear power. Never mind that nuclear is safer measured by output against the number of people killed or seriously injured than any other form of energy supply. Never mind that the levels of protection around nuclear facilities are many times greater, and more expensive than for any oil or gas operation. The distrust remains and is compounded by each new incident.
The Mayak facility in the southern Urals was built in the late 1940s as part of the Soviet programme to match American nuclear capability. The area subsequently became a centre of reprocessing and of civil nuclear power. Environmental protection was not, to put it mildly, the top priority. No waste disposal facility was built until 1953, with even high level waste initially simply being dumped into local rivers and Lake Kyzyltash.
In 1957 a radioactive waste container exploded at the site near Kyshtym – an accident judged by some to be among the three most serious in the world’s nuclear industry.
The shocking thing about the Kyshtym disaster is not just that it happened but that no one was told. Some of the local community were temporarily evacuated but soon returned to their homes and were apparently told that there were no risks. No report of the incident was published until a paper was published by the New Scientist in 1975. Even then the story was initially denied by the Soviet authorities. The full truth is probably still not known.
Ruthenium 106 is not highly dangerous – although the French authorities have said if a leak on this scale had occurred in their country local communities would have been evacuated immediately.
The problem is that we not know the cause of the latest leak or the condition of the whole complex of facilities around Mayak. The area is closed – one of network of closed cities created by the Soviet authorities in the 1950s and 60s. The partial news about what happened is only emerging because emissions from the leak or explosion or whatever happened were so substantial that they could be monitored from outside the country.
The incident matters for two reasons. First, nuclear power remains a significant source of energy supply across Europe. Even if no new nuclear stations are built because the costs are too high, dozens of old stations will remain operational for many years. Most are well managed but some are showing signs of ageing.
Second, and even more important, the earth’s atmosphere does not recognise national borders. The impact of an accident soon spreads. Europe is close to the former Soviet states, many of which contain nuclear facilities built decades ago. Are they safe? In many cases we cannot know because, like Mayak, they are closed.
Secrecy in the nuclear business is not limited to the Russians, of course. EDF will not tell us what has gone wrong at Flamanville, their flagship new nuclear plant in northern France which is years behind schedule and billions of euros over budget. At Sellafield, the UK’s major centre of nuclear activity, there is still a culture of secrecy.
The nuclear industry does not seem to realise the damage this does.
The modern nuclear industry, including companies such as Rosatom, is highly professional in most respects, but not in communication. Overall, the safety record is good. But distrust creates a competitive disadvantage for the whole business. Without full and open information the inevitable regulatory response to each concern is to add more rules and more costs.
That is why the industry is in relative decline in Europe and the US and recovering very slowly in Japan. It is growing only in areas such as China, where public scrutiny is limited or ineffective, but in an internet age even the most oppressive regimes cannot impose a blanket of silence when things go wrong.
Nuclear power ought to be have a significant role in the global energy mix. But it will only achieve that potential if the industry changes its ways.