UN convenes scientists to study nuclear power plant risks from natural disasters

16 August 2005 – Seeking to prevent nuclear power plant disasters from being unleashed by natural calamities, the United Nations atomic watchdog agency is organizing an international scientific workshop in India this month to re-examine risks from events such as last December’s catastrophic tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

“Learning from the lessons of this latest tsunami as well as from other flood events that occurred in the past will allow the review, revision and expansion, as appropriate of the Agency Safety Standards on external flooding hazards," International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Nuclear Installation Safety director Ken Brockman said.

The five-day International Workshop on External Flooding Hazards at Nuclear Power Plant Sites will begin on 29 August at India´s Kalpakkam nuclear power plant, which withstood the giant waves that engulfed the small township, home to India´s centre for atomic research.

Battered but safe, the plant shut down automatically after detectors tripped it as the water level rose. There was no release of radioactivity. The reactor was restarted 1 January 2005, six days after the catastrophic waves struck India´s east coast.

“There are scores of nuclear power plants operating in coastal areas and some of these may need to take a renewed look at this external hazard," IAEA Director of Nuclear Power Akira Omoto said. “It is also true for plants presently under construction.”

It is common for nuclear power plants to be built in coastal areas, drawing the seawater to cool the reactor. The IAEA has stringent safety standards designed to guard nuclear power plants against natural calamities like earthquakes, volcanoes, flooding, tsunamis and cyclones. The non-legally binding guidelines cover site and design requirements, as well as appropriate monitoring and warning systems.

Japan, which has developed systems to evaluate and protect reactors against the earthquakes and tsunamis regularly striking there, will provide guidance and share its experiences at the 17-country workshop. Case studies will be presented by countries such as France, where the Le Blayais reactor was hit by severe storms in December 1999.

The IAEA issued the Kalpakkam reactor a clean bill of health in the tsunami´s wake, rating the event a ‘zero’ or of ‘no safety significance’ on the International Nuclear Events Scale. Around 3.5 cubic metres of seawater, sludge and muck entered a construction pit, where the foundations for a new Fast Breeder Reactor were being built. Water also entered a pump house for cooling water, tripping the nuclear power plant to shut down.

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