Reuters Environment NewsBy Matt Spetalnick
MADRID - A toxic spill in southern Spain has caused an ecological disaster that is worsening by the hour as contaminated water and acid mud flow towards the sea, environmentalists said on Monday.
Greenpeace said the huge tide of poisonous waste, diverted away from the Donana National Park on Sunday, was killing everything in its path as it moved downstream in rivers and man-made channels to the Gulf of Cadiz.
Environment Minister Isabel Tocino said Donana, one of Europe's most prized nature reserves, was out of danger, but she described the ecological damage to the region as "catastrophic".
Environmental groups criticised the government's response and disputed Tocino's comments that the situation at the 75,000-hectare (185,000-acre) park was under control.
The crisis began on Saturday when a giant holding pool at the Aznalcollar mine, owned by the Canadian-Swedish company Boliden Ltd , burst its banks.
Five million cubic metres (6.7 million cubic yards) of sludge poured into the nearby Guadiamar River, heading downstream toward Donana, a natural wonder designated by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site.
The spill cut a 30-km (20-mile) trail of destruction along the river banks, damaging thousands of hectares (acres) of crops and killing birds, fish and crabs.
Authorities reported a handful of injuries, mostly people burned by acidic waters while rescuing pets and livestock.
Engineers scrambled on Sunday to build three makeshift sand-and-earth dykes to protect Donana, a vast sanctuary of sensitive marshlands, dense forests and sand dunes.
They diverted the tainted water, containing residues of zinc, lead and other metals, through channels to the larger Guadalquivir River and then out to the Gulf of Cadiz.
One of the dykes broke at high tide, but crews reinforced the structures overnight and all were intact on Monday.
The government said emergency measures saved the park's ecosystem, but environmentalists said the spillage had contaminated surrounding marshlands that serve as feeding and nesting grounds for rare bird species.
Authorities said the Guadalquivir, one of Spain's largest rivers, had enough capacity to dilute the toxins. But nature groups gave warnings of heavy losses to the fishing industry.
"They're more interested in saving ducks than people," a spokesman for Guadalquivir fisherman's group said.
Greenpeace accused the government of not doing enough and sent its ship MV Greenpeace to investigate.
Tocino asked a provincial judge to investigate the mining company for possible violation of environmental law.
"It is clear that the ecological damage, the environmental damage and the agricultural damage of this catastrophe...have been enormous," she told state television.
The spill 50 km (30 miles) upstream from Donana created a black stain on the surface of the Guadiamar stretching for nearly a kilometre (half a mile).
The farmers association ASAJA reported a preliminary estimate of 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) of farmland damaged, with losses totalling $10 million, but it said the final figure was likely to go much higher.
Accusing the mining company of negligence, ASAJA demanded repayment of farmers' losses and said it planned legal action.
Large stretches of tomato and sunflower fields were stained black by overflowing waters. Olive groves, citrus orchards, cotton crops and rice paddies were also affected.
"I'm ruined," one tomato farmer said. "I've lost my whole crop, my whole livelihood."
Environmentalists said the contaminated farmland would be unusable for years to come.
The river banks were littered with dead fish and crabs. The bodies of birds were also found.
The mayors of seven towns along the Guadiamar warned people against drinking from ground wells. Sheep and cattle owners were told to keep livestock away from the river.
Boliden said the ground beneath the reservoir had slipped without warning. It said production had been halted at the mine "until we solve some of our problems".
The Swedish conglomerate Trelleborg , which owns a 41.8 percent stake in Boliden, said it saw no sign of negligence on the part of the mining company.
Canada's Placer Dome had a similar spillage in 1996 at its Philippine Marcopper mine. The cleanup of the nearby Boac River continues and Placer has agreed to spend $75 million on the recovery programme.
Reuters Environment NewsBy Peter Javurek
BRATISLAVA - Slovakia's state-owned electricity generator said it had begun loading nuclear fuel on Monday into a reactor at its controversial Mochovce power plant.
The announcement by Slovenske Elektrarne came as protesters from the environmentalist group Greepeace gathered outside the Soviet-designed nuclear plant, which is due to begin operating in June or July.
It has been widely criticised by both Western and domestic environmentalists as outdated, dangerous and unreliable.
"The reactor in Mochovce would not gain permission for operation in any EU country, due to its safety shortcomings," Slovak Greenpeace said in a statement on Monday.
Neighbouring Austria, which fiercely opposes nuclear power programmes, has also expressed concern and an Austrian delegation of experts will visit the plant next month.
The Slovak government denies charges that the plant is unsafe, saying that it has upgraded it in line with International Atomic Energy Agency recommendations, including the adoption of a Siemens control system and changes in primary and secondary circuit systems.
Work on the plant at Mochovce, which is around 120 km (75 miles) from the Austrian border, began in the mid-1980s, but was suspended in 1989 after the project ran into financial problems and required safety upgrades.
The first reactor is scheduled to be completed by the end of June and the second by the end of March 1999.
Slovenske Elektrarne spokeswoman Alena Melicharkova said nuclear fuel was being loaded into Mochovce's first reactor on Monday morning and that further details would be released later.
"Today we're starting to load the first block in Mochovce with the fuel," Melicharkova told Reuters.
Greenpeace said: "Nobody asked us, inhabitants of this country, whether we want or not to have this dangerous energy resource close to our homes."
Sunday was the 12th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine which borders Slovakia to the east.
Slovenske Elektrarne already runs the Jaslovske Bohunice nuclear power station in western Slovakia about 70 km (45 miles) from the Austrian border.
In March, SE said it had signed a contract in Moscow with Russian nuclear fuel maker OAO TVEL to supply Slovak nuclear power stations after 1999.
TVEL is a Russian concern which manufactures, produces and exports nuclear fuel rods.
Reuters Environment News
MADRID - A Spanish farmers' group on Monday put damage to crops resulting from a toxic waste spill in the southern region of Andalusia this weekend at a preliminary 1.5 billion pesetas ($10 million).
But the ASAJA farm group said final losses were likely to be much higher.
It will ask the government to declare the spill zone a disaster area and said in a statement it plans to take legal action in the matter.
The cost of crops lost in a tide of metal residues could be calculated quickly but contamination of surrounding water supplies and longer-term effects of the spill could be enormous, the group said.
Some 6,000 hectares (15,000 acres) of farmland was flooded by the spill.
But a spokesman for the farmers' group said, "damage is not only limited to that area but also the area around the spill...it's very early days to say how much damage will be caused."
Longer-term damage to water sources around the spill could affect irrigation of rice, cotton and some cereal crops. The toxic waste seeping into the soil could make the land unsuitable for cultivation for many years.
"Final losses for the area and for the 10 nearby communities will be much higher, since these lands may not be usable for various years and many crops not flooded by the waste will have no water because of the poisoning of the wells," Asaja said in a statement.
Environmentalists warned that the "ecological disaster" caused by the spill was worsening by the hour as contaminated water and acid mud flowed toward the sea.
The crisis began on Saturday when a giant residue pool at the Aznalcollar mine, owned by Canada's Boliden Ltd, burst its banks.
Five million cubic metres (6.7 million cubic yards) of toxic sludge poured into the nearby Guadiamar river, heading downstream toward Donana National Park, a natural wonder designated by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site.
The spillage cut a 30-km (20-mile) trail of destruction along the river banks, damaging thousands of hectares (acres) of crops and killing birds, fish and crabs.
Regional government officials said they were making no damage estimates until later this week. The area affected by the spill runs from Seville down to the coastal city of Cadiz.
Andalusia produces around two thirds of Spain's modest durum wheat crop, which totalled around 1.11 million tonnes in 1997, according to Agriculture Ministry estimates. It accounts for less than eight percent of a total 3.5 million tonne national soft wheat harvest and less than three percent of 8.6 million tonnes of domestic barley.
The region also produces about one fifth of Spain's orange crop. ((Elisabeth O'Leary, Madrid newsroom, +34 91 585-2160, email@example.com)).
Reuters Environment News
TOKYO - Toshiba Corp said on Monday it had entered into a tie-up with British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) in fields such as nuclear waste management and dismantling of ageing nuclear reactors.
A Toshiba spokesman said the two firms had already jointly developed an advanced cement to be used to seal radioactive waste from nuclear power plants into drums, which are eventually buried underground.
The cement remains fluid three hours after being mixed with water, compared with one hour for conventional material, allowing for a more flexible work schedule, he said. He also said the alliance would help Toshiba to be competitive in securing orders for the demolition of old reactors.
He did not provide any other details.
Japan's oldest commercial reactor, at Tokai on the Pacific coast, was permanently closed in March, having started operations in 1966. Other reactors built in the 1960s are expected to be shut early in the next century.
The demolition of the Tokai reactor is expected to cost about 25 billion yen, according to the operator, Japan Atomic Power Co. ((Tokyo Energy Desk +81-3 3432 3708 firstname.lastname@example.org)).
Reuters Environment News
HELSINKI - Finnish state-owned power producer Imatran Voima (IVO) said on Monday it will evaluate the environmental impacts of a possible new nuclear power plant at Loviisa on Finland's south coast.
"By starting the process, IVO is making sure that a new nuclear plant at Loviisa will be among the alternatives when building a new base power plant will be considered," IVO said in a statement.
IVO - which is merging with state-controlled oil and energy group Neste - said it would deliver a report on the study to the Ministry of Industry and Trade in late spring 1999.
The government has been considering allowing the construction of a fifth nuclear power reactor since the late 1980s, but the issue will not be raised in parliament until after general elections due next spring.
Natural gas is Finland's main alternative to nuclear power.
IVO runs a two-reactor nuclear power plant at Loviisa, and it holds a quarter of industry-owned Teollisuuden Voima, which runs Finland's other two-reactor plant at the west coast.
It also has stakes, via its Swedish subsidiay Gullspangs, in the Forsmark and Oscarshamn nuclear plants in Sweden.
Reuters Environment News
LONDON - A controversial shipment of nuclear material from Georgia arrived in Britain on Friday to be stored at a Scottish nuclear plant.
The nuclear material, the subject of a secret deal between the United States, Britain and the former Soviet republic, was transported by truck on a 100-mile (161 km) journey to the remote Scottish plant at Dounreay, police said.
A spokeswoman at the plant said: "It has arrived and has now been secured on site."
The cache - comprising four kg (9 lb) of highly enriched uranium and about one kg of spent nuclear fuel - arrived before dawn on Friday on a U.S. transport aircraft at a British air force base in Scotland.
The shipment is to be reprocessed at Dounreay under a deal aimed at keeping it from falling into the hands of rebels opposed to the Georgian government. The nuclear material had been stored at a research reactor outside the Georgian capital Tbilisi.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended his decision to accept the shipment, saying Britain was joining international action to promote world security.
Blair also said the operation had been kept secret because of fears that rebels in the former Soviet republic might take control of the research reactor.
British environmentalists have protested against the Labour government's decision.
Georgia had originally hoped to enlist Russian help in removing the nuclear material. After Moscow failed to make good on promises to accept the shipment, Washington went ahead with the operation while keeping Moscow fully informed.
Reuters Environment News
NEW YORK - A Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) team was expected to end their two-week safety inspection at one of the three Millstone nuclear reactors in Connecticut, the agency said Friday.
"It is supposed to wrap up tonight," a NRC spokeswoman replied when asked about the inspection at Millstone's unit 3.
The group of a dozen inspectors has been onsite examining improvements to the unit two years after the NRC questioned the facility's safety and operations.
Millstone's owner and operator, Northeast Utilities (NU), decided to restore unit 3, the largest and the newest of the three units, back to service first.
NU has said it hopes to restart Millstone 3 in late May or June, pending NRC approval.
The agency's four commissioners will be updated on the work carried on Millstone 3 from NU, a consulting firm and its own staff on Friday May 1, the NRC spokeswoman said.
The commissioners will likely vote on whether to grant NU clearance to restart Millstone 3 at a subsequent meeting which has not yet been set, according to the spokeswoman.
On May 5, NU management and NRC safety inspectors will meet at Millstone to review their findings.
Millstone 1, rated at 660 megawatts (MW), was idled in November 1995. Unit 2 (870 MW) was taken out of service in February 1996 and unit 3 (1,150 MW) was shut the following month. Apart from costs tied to upgrades and repairs, NU has been spending about $28 million per month on replacement energy to compensate for the loss of the Millstone units.
Connecuticut regulators gave NU a July 1 deadline to place Millstone 3 back online or else be pulled from its rate base.
Reuters Environment News
ATHENS - Greenpeace called on Turkey on Thursday to give up plans to build a nuclear power plant on its southern coast, saying it endangered the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans.
"Turkey plans to have 10 nuclear reactors by 2020. With the plants in Bulgaria and Romania, it will really make the Balkans a nuclear powder keg," Stelios Psomas, director of the Greek office of Greenpeace, told a news conference.
Greenpeace urged Turkey to cover its increasing energy needs by conserving and taking advantage of its abundant renewable energy resources.
The Turkish government is due to pick the companies that will build the country's first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu by June. It is estimated to cost $5 billion.
"Today, as we near the 12th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, we see in the most macabre way what are the terrifying consequences of nuclear technology for our lives, health and environment," Psomas said.
Ukraine's Chernobyl reactor number 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, releasing a deadly radioactive cloud, killing thousands and turning the surrounding area into a wasteland.
"One would expect common sense would have prevailed since but it obviously hasn't. We are determined to support the residents of Akkuyu who are resisting this plant and the Turkish Greenpeace campaigners," Psomas said.
Reuters Environment NewsBy Chris Bird
CHERNOBYL, Ukraine - A spot of brilliant light beamed out from the red and white striped ventilation stack above the Chernobyl nuclear power station's reactor Number 4 on Wednesday.
A Ukrainian welder, braving an unhealthy dose of radiation, was repairing supports to the ventilator damaged in the 1986 explosion which ripped apart Chernobyl's fourth reactor in the world's worst civil nuclear accident.
The explosion spewed a deadly radioactive cloud, forcing hundreds of thousands to leave their homes. Ukraine's health ministry says radiation related diseases are four times more prevalent in the country since the explosion.
Barbed wire surrounds a 30 km (20 miles) exclusion zone around the plant and several abandoned towns. Ukrainian police stop cars at checkpoints to test them for contamination with Geiger counters.
The repairs, funded by the United States and Canada, are the first of a series of desperately needed measures to stop the collapse of the steel and concrete "sarcophagus" entombing the reactor after years of bickering between Ukraine and Western donor countries.
The $200,000 worth of repairs are a drop in the ocean compared to the $750 million the former Soviet republic says it needs to make the crumbling sarcophagus safe.
But the work is the most urgent as it should stop the ventilator from toppling onto neighbouring reactor Number 3, which the plant plans to restart next week.
The third reactor, the only one of four still functioning after the disaster, was closed down last year after cracks were discovered in the cooling system's pipes.
Now the third and fourth reactors, which stand back to back under the shaky ventilation stack, form the two strands in impoverished Ukraine's strategy to extract cash from western nations pushing for Chernobyl's closure by 2000.
Valery Popov, an engineer charged with monitoring the sarcophagus, thumbed through photographs of cracked concrete and corroded metal girders.
"Behind the metal wall," said Popov, pointing to the massive slate grey barn-like structure over the fourth reactor, "there are large cracks right across the concrete structure".
He said the wall, holding back tonnes of highly radioactive debris, had shifted 40 millimetres in 1997 alone.
Popov said the roof was in danger of collapse and rainwater which had seeped into the structure and had become contaminated could pose a threat to the water table not far from the surface.
"The structure is not hermetically sealed," he explained. "The more we dither about 'stabilising' the structure, the worse it gets - I think we shall have to build a new, second sarcophagus to contain the reactor," he said.
Western donors, including the Group of Seven (G7) rich industrial nations, have promised over $300 million towards overhauling the sarcophagus and are likely to stump up the rest.
The sticking point is a further $1.6 billion demanded by Ukraine to complete two new nuclear plants in the west of the country which the government argues it needs to replace Chernobyl's lost generating capacity.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the Chernobyl donors' main representative, has fought the demand, saying loans for the two plants - Ukraine's skewed system of subsidies and poor tariff collection mean a fifth of its electricity is simply given away - would be unviable.
With each side camped out on their positions for now, Ukraine will restart Chernobyl's third reactor four days before the EBRD holds its annual general meeting in Kiev next month, described as a coincidence by plant officials.