10 May 2017

A ionizing experience

In 1987 Italians voted against the use of nuclear power plants to produce electricity on the Italian land. This meant an immediate shut-down of all four nuclear plants and the beginning of a long decommissioning phase. Few years later, real decommissioning works could begin (around 1994) and since few years ago the former nuclear sites are safe enough to be visited by the general public.

SOGIN, the company owning the plants and handling the whole decommissioning process, opened their gates last weekend (6-7 May, 2017) with two possible guided tours: unrestricted and controlled zones. I managed to get a seat in the remainings of the controlled area tour.

Taking pictures was strictly forbidden, so this will be a blind blog post.

The plant in Trino used a PWR reactor build between 1960 and 1964. We dressed up covering shoes and wearing gloves, helmet and white coat. Some participants were given a dosimeter, while the staff wore their own. We climbed up four floors to see the pools from above (still full of water), then moved to the area that was above the reactor (temperature during operation: 60-70 °C). The top position offered a clear view of the vessel from above. Then we went outside to a temporary storage of nuclear waste, full of drums, some already categorised, some not. Probably this was the most active area visited even if the highly active material (reactor fuel) has been moved to France and UK for reprocessing. Lastly, before leaving the controlled zone, we removed all the protective clothing and got two full-body scans for possible contamination. Everyone was clean.

It was a really unique experience. It showed how complex and costly is to decommission a nuclear power plant, regardless it happens after its useful life or before. It was clear that the technology itself is safe, as long as a human error, human stupidity mixed with bravery (Chernobyl disaster) or natural event (Fukushima) do not interfere with the operation of the plant. In my humble opinion the largest problem of this technology is the kind of waste that is produced, which requires ages to become safe. Don't forget that the same kind of waste is produced by nuclear medicine and research centres, even if in smaller quantities.

I asked the tour leader if, in two years from now - the possible next Open Gates event - there will be something left to see in the uncontrolled zone. She nodded. Dismantling the Trino plant will end somewhere near year 2030.