When factories explode

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The National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) is a French public research institution (publicly-owned establishment in scientific and technological matters, placed under the supervision of the Ministry for Higher Education and Research). It counts 30,000 employees (including 26,080 tenured staff – 11,664 researchers and 14,416 engineers, technicians and administrative staff). Its 2007 budget amounted to 3,080 billion euros, 513 billion euros of which come from their own resources. With satellites throughout France, the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) officiates in all knowledge domains, through 1260 research and service units.

(…) Industrial risks disturb the French as much as natural disasters. Recent history is indeed punctuated by events of varying seriousness and impact on public opinion. Some events had a relatively limited long-term health impact. Such was the case of the AZF (AZote Fertilisants) factory in 2001, which killed 30 people in Toulouse, or the Seveso disaster in 1976 in Italy, when a dioxin cloud burst out of the reactor of a chemical factory and spread over the Lombardy region. However, their psychological impact is long-lasting. Other disasters, such as the 1984 Bhopal incident, had health consequences which are still noticeable. There, the explosion of a pesticide plant released 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas in the atmosphere, killing between 16,000 and 30,000 people. Over 360,000 people were affected, among which many remained handicapped and are living today in very harsh conditions. “These disasters raised awareness of risks,” explains Frédéric Ogé, sociologist at the research facility for the organization and propagation of geographic Information (Propgi). “The problem is that, despite the warnings from whatever source, measures are too often taken after the event rather than before”. (1) The truth of this statement is borne out by the 1982 European Seveso Directive, which was passed only after the incidents which took place in the seventies. This directive, named after the disaster of the same name, aimed at identifying factories at risks and controlling dangers associated with hazardous substances. In 1986, it was replaced by a more stringent directive, Seveso 2, but was only really enforced after the explosion of the AZF factory.

Chernobyl, twenty years later

Among industrial disasters, the most serious and the very one for which, twenty years later, we are still unable to assess the aftermath, is the 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, on the Ukraine-Belarus border. Alfredo Pena-Vega, a sociologist at Cetsah (France) (2), carried out research in Stolyn and Narowlya, respectively located 80km (? 50 miles) and 70km (? 43 miles) away from the reactor. He was particularly interested in the health of the population that did not evacuate the area. “Health conditions remain disturbing,” he states. “For instance, in the villages of the Narowlya precinct, only 16% of the population may be considered healthy. All others suffer from radioactivity-linked pathologies of various levels of seriousness: gastric, cardiac and thyroid disorders, including cancers. Furthermore, health conditions of this population are not going to improve since people live and are born on those radioactive grounds”. Yet, around 30% of the budget of the State of Belarus goes towards alleviating the aftermath of the disaster: rehabilitation of contaminated ground, support to affected populations, compensation for the well-known “liquidators”, those men in charged of decontaminating the site of Chernobyl the day after the explosion and heavily exposed to radiation.

Is a major health disaster like this one still possible, despite the substantial improvements in regards to security and control of facilities that arose in the past thirty years? “Education on risk has, I think, reached its limits”, alleges Frédéric Ogé. “Security procedures tend to disintegrate as time goes by and human error or technical incidents may lead to major disasters. I believe we are facing a societal choice: to carry on taking risks, that will, sooner or later lead to disasters, or to resolve to abandon all hazardous modes of production”.

1. Research lab of NCSR (National Center for Scientific Research) / Universities of Paris-I, IV et VII / EPHE (Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes).

2. At the interdisciplinary institute of contemporary anthropology (CNRS / EHESS).

Quand les usines explosent

Sebastián Escalón

The CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) journal N°208, May 2007.

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