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Phebus: An intentional catastrophe

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

(December 17, 1993) On 2 December, French nuclear technicians set off a miniature worst-case accident in the Phébus test at Cadarache near Marseille (see also NC 397.3872). Within a small-scale power plant a core of fuel rods was allowed to melt at 2800°C. Radioactive gases were held in a containment above the small Pressurized Water Reactor.

(404.4005) WISE Amsterdam - According to newspaper information, one thousand billion becquerels of radiation circulated in the experimental pipe system of the reactor during the "accident." The core contained about 3 million curies, or one five-thousandth of the normal inventory of fissionable material in a working nuclear reactor. The managers of the experiment hoped that a controlled core meltdown would give information about the type and extent of interactions that go on between the fuel and the surrounding material during a coremelt.

The reactor will be investigated further during coming months, and five other controlled accidents will be conducted in a US$ 170 million program with international participants that will continue until 1998. The directors of the program hope that these closely monitored accidents will give information about the type and extent of interactions that go on between the fuel and surrounding materials during a meltdown.

These expectations are doubted by critics. According to a study by the German "Gruppe Ökologie," the experiment is doomed to failure because the reactor is too small to copy the "real" sequence of events in a full-scale meltdown and for good reasons! This is why Greenpeace filed a lawsuit against the German federal government, one of the participants (German law forbids anyone to start a nuclear accident).

The experiment has struck others as a signal for the future. Phébus, in all likelihood, will reorient the industry's whole safety philosophy of the past thirty years from prevention to management of an accident.

Sources: die tageszeitung, 3 Dec. 1993

Contact: Wise-Paris, 5 rue Buot, 75013 Paris, France
Greenpeace Germany, Vorsetzen 53, 20459 Hamburg, Germany
Gruppe Ökologie, Kleine Düwelstrasse 21, 30171 Hannover, Germany
tel. +49-511-85 30 55, fax +49-511-85 30 62