Nuke Fessenheim: How French nuke Fessenheim becomes dirty bomb

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How French nuke Fessenheim becomes dirty bomb

by Ralf Streck Saturday December 09, 2006

The possibility keeps being raised of terrorists being enabled to build dirty bombs with radioactive materials to increase the damage of their attacks ( ). French and German environment advocacy groups have now shown how easily an attack with conventional weapons could turn the oldest French nuclear power station at Fessenheim into a dirty bomb whose fallout would impact hundreds of thousands of people.

A way on the eastern embankment on the French side of the upper Rhine is totally unprotected and unguarded. On a track in good condition it’s been possible so far for anyone to approach with a car or even large truck the two reactor blocks of the Fessenheim nuclear power station and the connected interim storage for fuel rods. Fessenheim’s reactors 1 and 2 were put into industrial service in 1977 and 1978. It’s the oldest nuke in France. This track is obviously not guarded, because, say the activists, no check is made even of a car staying there for a longer time.

From this track only a side channel of the Rhine, a “ludicrously low fence and thin concrete” separates a possible attacker from “the radioactive reactor core and the even worse-protected interim storage facility for atomic waste”. Seven groups wrote this in a confidential letter to the responsible French authorities. After lengthy discussion it had been decided not to do the usual thing of informing the media, to avoid giving anyone ideas, explained the regional manager of BUND, the German branch of Friends of the Earth in Freiburg to Telepolis.

Rather, the authorities were to be given the chance to close this “open flank” of the nuclear power station. Because, said the letter, “an attack with modern armour-piercing weapons on the Fessenheim nuclear power station would have devastating effects. Armour and bunker-busting weapons of all kinds have unfortunately long since belonged to the usual arsenal of weapons in the terrorist sector and are available on the black market.” Such an attack could also impact the surrounding cities Mulhouse, Freiburg, Basel and Strasbourg.

Both Fessenheim reactor blocks “with 900 MW annual capacity each [would contain] the short and long-lived radioactivity of about 1,800 Hiroshima bombs”. The “release” of a mere part of the radioactive material in the power station or in the even less protected interim storage would have devastating consequences for the region concerned, they complained, and urgently called on the authorities to secure the track referred to. It appears that the letter, dated 21 November, was not totally ignored because it has already stirred activity on the Internet. Some time ago the views of the nuke and surrounds on Google Earth changed markedly. Whereas previously it could be seen in sharp resolution, now you see it only hazily. The letter was also dealt with by the responsible control commission of the power station. Its chairman, Pierre Schmitt, made the letter public there. By that route the subject found its way into the Basler Zeitung newspaper, which then reported on it, against the original will of the writers. >From then on it made no sense to keep dealing with the matter secretly, said the environment activist groups.

Although after the attacks in New York and Washington the possibility of attacks on nuclear power stations had been intensively discussed for a brief time, no discernible action was taken. The debate about installing anti-aircraft rockets near atomic plants in France “probably was meant more to calm the population”. The plants themselves were apparently not subjected to any risk analysis and weak points like those depicted in Fessenheim were either not discovered or no notice was taken of them. Mayer is also astonished that although public spaces are monitored ever more intensely with cameras, where they were needed there obviously weren’t any ( ).

Where is the sense in stirring panic about the possible detonation of dirty bombs when atomic plants are poorly protected?

That Fessenheim is no singular case in Europe was shown by the environment advocacy group Greenpeace in Spain in 2003. The issue had come up again after the devastating attacks in March 2003 in Madrid ( ). But the security of the atomic plants was not increased there, either. And so members of the organisation were able to occupy a reactor for the first time in Zorita. Only one watchman had stood in the way of the activists ( ).

The tragic death of a nuclear opponent during a waste transport in France also made clear that a train filled with nuclear waste is easy to attack. A great accident danger was also revealed because it became clear the train would not have been stoppable in front of any other obstacle on the tracks because safety regulations were breached( ).

In Fessenheim the environment organisations have long demanded the “scrap reactor” be switched off, arguing that it not safe against an aircraft crash. Other reactors in the Rhine Valley are also notorious for mishaps. Two became known this year. In July one reactor had to be switched off. An inspection in April had revealed that for hours an emergency cooling system in the primary circuit of block 2 had broken down.

In 1998, after long protests, the lid of the station was exchanged because cracks had appeared in it. But for some years the main criticism of the nuke is of its safety in earthquakes. Material fatigue and cracks in the reactor pressure chambers have occurred. In 2000 the French nuclear supervisory authority ( ) reported that several protective functions were not reliably assured in case of an earthquake. On 22.2.2003 and on 05.12.2004 there were significant quakes near the reactors in the Rhine Valley, which is prone to quakes. The epicentre readings of 5.4 on the Richter scale occurred in St. Die and Waldkirch, in the vicinity of reactors.

And so quake security was also back on the agenda for Monday’s meeting of the control commission. However, chairman Pierre Schmitt was not able to say anything about how far the investigation of the Institute for Geosciences at the University of Strasbourg has got. That study is looking at how quickly and strongly the shakes of an earthquake spread and continue on through the soil layers in the Upper Rhine rift. Three of the measuring points are in the grounds of the nuclear power station. Since January 2005 the commission has heard nothing about the study. Then its first findings were presented.