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SPAIN: Warning of Radioactive Leak Comes Five Months Late

Alicia Fraerman

MADRID, Apr 15 2008 (IPS) - Failure to inform the authorities and take safety measures after a radioactive leak at a Spanish nuclear plant nearly five months ago has alarmed people in nearby towns, environmentalists and civil society organisations.

One of Spain’s eight nuclear power plants at Ascó, a village in the northeastern region of Catalonia, leaked radioactivity on Nov. 29, 2007, but those responsible failed to inform nearby residents, thus preventing them from taking remedial action to protect themselves.

The Spanish branch of environmental watchdog Greenpeace International, which on Apr. 5 was the first to report publicly that the leak had taken place, said on Tuesday that among the protective measures that had been omitted because of the plant’s silence was the essential step of cancelling all visits to the premises.

In fact, children from several schools toured the plant after the leak had occurred.

Robert Serra, head of the Maristas school in Girona, told IPS that his greatest concern is that “they let visits by schoolchildren continue, even though they knew what had happened in November.” That is why his school has determined that all pupils who went on the visit to the nuclear plant undergo medical checks to prevent any health problems.

Given the secrecy that still shrouds the incident, on Tuesday Greenpeace Spain sent the state Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) 50 questions which, under current legislation, must be answered within 30 days.


Greenpeace wants to know what regulations are in force at the Ascó-Vandellòs Nuclear Association, the owners of the reactor, for procedures within the unit and for the actions of its operators, for the design and fulfilment of its safety systems and for notification of public authorities of safety-related incidents.

“Knowing what really happened is necessary so that citizens can demand that sanctions be imposed according to nuclear legislation, and to initiate criminal and civil actions, if there is evidence of harm to persons or the environment caused by radiation,” Carlos Bravo, head of Greenpeace Spain’s Nuclear Campaign, told the press.

After Greenpeace reported the leak at the plant, the CSN issued a press release, but it contained few details.

On Tuesday, in a new announcement, the CSN said that the radioactive leak was in fact 100 times greater than the amount initially declared by the company, so it has decided to open an investigation, as well as have medical checks performed on over 700 people who have been in contact with the plant.

Based on a report it received on Monday, the CSN accused the power plant on Tuesday of exercising “inadequate control of radioactive material” and of providing “incomplete and deficient information.”

The leak, which according to the company was Level 1, is now classified by the CSN as Level 2, on a scale of one to seven. This makes it one of the four most serious mishaps in the history of Spain’s nuclear industry.

The CSN’s deputy director of radiological protection, Manuel Rodríguez, said that the agency had given out “inadequate” information because it had itself been misinformed, and added that “the radioactivity leaked outside the plant is estimated to be 100 times more than what the plant declared a week ago,” although at that time the company already knew the facts.

On Apr. 4, the company told CSN that 235,000 becquerels of radioactivity had been leaked, whereas in its latest report it put the number at 19.5 million becquerels.

The CSN met with the 13 mayors of the neighbouring municipal districts on Apr. 7 to inform them of the event, but the power plant’s managers did not reveal the true facts even then.

Greenpeace activist Bravo insists that this lack of information is serious.

The company that owns the plant, in which Spanish transnational companies Endesa and Iberdrola are the main shareholders, issued its own communiqué on Monday stating that “analysis of the particles that were found and removed confirm that the radiation is of scant significance and will not affect people’s health or the environment.”

“Once the clean-up work, which was given top priority, was completed, precise laboratory analyses on the particles, and the necessary calculations, were carried out,” it added.

But according to Bravo, this was “totally inadequate as a logical explanation of the origin and causes of the event, as well as for evaluating its radiological consequences.”

Moreover, he said, “there is no minimum threshold for the stochastic (random) effects of ionising radiation, even if the radioactivity were below regulation levels, which remains to be proven.”

Given what it calls the “irresponsible operation” of the nuclear plant, Greenpeace is demanding that the CSN and the government cancel its licence and suspend the activities of Ascó and another plant owned by the same company, as a precautionary measure.

Quantifying the level of radiation is essential to assess the radiological risk to persons and the environment, and also to establish whether any laws were broken at the nuclear plant.

While the debate goes on, the nuclear plant is continuing to operate, concern in civil society is rising and the government is waiting for a detailed report from the CSN to come to a decision. The head of CSN, Carmen Martínez Ten, will be appearing before the lower house of Congress to explain what has happened, on an as-yet undetermined date.

 
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