22/08/2008 6:01 pmMany technological disasters have marked the XXth century. Minamata in Japan (1953), Three Mile Island in the USA (1979), Bhopal in India (1984) and Chernobyl in Belarus (1986) permanently disrupted the lives of populations and changed their environment. Each disaster reminds us of our industrial systems' possible failures because zero risk is impossible in any sector.
Nuclear accidents and risk
For a long time, a nuclear disaster was deemed unlikely. Nuclear energy was presented as carefully monitored. But when half of the core of a reactor melted in the Three Miles Island (TMI) nuclear power station in the United States in 1979, concern grew. Even though there were no casualties and the radiation was confined by the security system, the accident led to the suspension of the United States' civil nuclear program. For those against nuclear power, this was proof that accidents could indeed happen.
In 1976 the catastrophe in Seveso, an Italian town contaminated by leaking of dioxine from a chemical plant, caused the evacuation on 600 people and 2,000 had to be treated for sickness due to the contamination. This accident led to a new European directive to be put into place on industrial sites at risk; it is called the Seveso directive.
The Seveso installations are listed and subject to authorization and must comply with a series of measures preventing risks. Risk prevention is carried out in advance in order to limit the probability of accidents as well as at a later stage in order to foresee the most efficient means of action in case an accident were to occur. The checks are frequent, 1,150 sites are listed in France.
Nevertheless, all these measures did not prevent the explosion of the AZF factory, a SEVESO site in Toulouse, killing 30 people and causing thousands of injuries in the town. This accident acted as a reminder of the risks that continue to exist despite security measures.
La baie de Minamata au Japon est tristement célèbre pour les milliers de personnes qui y ont été empoisonnée. Pendant des décennies, et jusqu’en 1966, la société Chisso a déversé du mercure dans les eaux (150 tonnes au total). Ce métal toxique empoisonné les poissons, puis les pêcheurs et leur familles qui s'en nourissaient. La contamination entraîne des dysfonctionnements nerveux et des malformations chez les nouveau-nés. Près de 3 000 cas de ce qu'on a appelé la maladie de Minamata ont été officiellement recensés, et 10 000 personnes seraient affectées à un degré moindre. Même si la société a été reconnue responsable et a dû indemniser les victimes, une solution politique au problème n’a été trouvée qu’en 1996. Ses effets se font encore ressentir aujourd'hui puisque la pêche a été interdite dans la baie, des opérations de décontamination et de drainage ont eu lieu sur une superficie de 58 hectares.
On April 26, 1986, the concrete slab protecting the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded because of the reactor's fusion; the whole area was radioactively contaminated. In the first few days, about thirty people who were strongly irradiated whilst fighting the fire, died. But the total number of victims of this disaster is still unclear. The World Health Organisation concluded on 4000 deaths in total. However, most organisations estimate that over 200 000 people died as a result of the fallout, including many of the former Chernobyl « liquidators », the workers responsible for containing the site's radioactivity. Several million people now are said to suffer from congenital malformations, cancer, pulmonary disease, etc. linked to the effects of radioactive contamination. Twenty years after the disaster, the area within a 30 mile radius of the power station is still uninhabitable.
A disaster was possible and its consequences would be terrible. In addition, the authorities that were supposed to protect the populations tried to hide the extent of the disaster. In Belarus, the State did not immediately evacuate its population and hid the real extent of the danger; in France the authorities claimed that the radioactive cloud did not cross the country's borders. This was far from the truth.
Bhopal and the question of responsibility
The Bhopal industrial disaster in Central India in December 1984 is considered the most serious in history together with Chernobyl. Following a leak in a silo of a Union Carbide pesticide production factory, a composite from the cyanide family spilt in the streets of a shanty town close to the factory. The estimated number of victims is still subject to controversy. According to the company, 3800 people died from the fallout of the disaster but Greenpeace counted 8000 deaths in the 3 days following the accident and 20 000 other deaths from the intoxication. The groundwater is still polluted and almost a million people have been contaminated.
The question of the company's responsibility rapidly raised a lot of questions and debates. Who was responsible: the multinational based in the United States which had delocalised production to India or only the Indian subsidiary? Where would the trial take place: in India or in the United States? And finally, how should the victims' compensation be calculated? In 1989, the Indian Supreme Court sentenced the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide as well as the mother company ; a total of 470 million dollars was awarded in compensation. The company paid very fast; it has since considered the case to be closed and even claims that the tragedy was the result of malice rather than a failure on its part.
Even though it was weakened for a while, the company wasn't very affected. It was absorbed by the Dow group and the Indian subsidiary was sold. Warren Anderson, the president of Union Carbide was arrested in India when the disaster occurred and was then let out on bail. He then fled to the United States and did not show up for the trial. He was not extradited.
Still today, the associations consider that the compensation awarded to victims were laughable considering the health and environmental damages that were caused. They want the site to be cleaned up. They feel that this process was not finished. Several legal actions have since been undertaken in the United States by victims. These were unsuccessful.
The risk society
These two examples show that if modern science allows Man to think that he can totally control nature, technology creates new risks. Based on this report, the German philosopher Hans Jonas developed something he calls the responsibility principle in 1979. This principle served as inspiration for the precaution principle.
In 1986, a little after Chernobyl, the German sociologist Ulrich Beck explained how risk has become completely omnipresent in society in a book entitled Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. According to him, prevention can take place if risks are known and proven whilst precaution aims to prevent risks that have not yet been determined. Thus, faced with the unknown, all innovation should prove its innocuousness before being put into service.
These principles are not always totally applicable in practice. However, applying the precaution principle as a hard and fast rule can be seen as preventing innovation and progress. Some people have therefore suggested compromises. Be that as it may, risk assessment is down to experts, but the decision on whether the risks should be taken or not is a political one. In democratic societies, such a decision is only possible if the population and its representatives are informed.
The Erika shipwreck and the Exxon Valdez shipwreck, the incident with the contaminated blood, Sevezo in Italy, Minamata in Japan (see box) : all these disasters have shown how important it is to establish preventive measures and how those in charge (usually people or private companies) can balk at doing this. It is therefore often up to the government to force them to do so.
Unfortunately, it is often after this type of disaster and the reactions they cause that the authorities decide to act. Even though it has been slow and it is still far from being enough, a lot of progress has been made in the past few decades in the West.
Increasing prevention norms has even led to the emergence of new jobs which specialise in prevention and risk management for communities and companies.