Working on the GAMMA RAYLROAD: Nuclear Transport in France

by Nolwenn Weiler
January 9, 2012
translated from French

Nolwenn Weiler

Two or three trains carrying radioactive waste of nuclear fuel move throughout France every day. These cargoes are considered to be “of no danger” for the railway workers involved in their transport, according to the SNCF (French national railways) and AREVA. However, in the absence of specific precautionary measures, some workers are concerned. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that in the future, under privatization of the railways, these high risk loads will not be handled by private companies that are less concerned with safety.
138,000 kilometers: that’s the distance traveled each year by nuclear cargoes on French railways. “You hear a lot of talk about trains carrying waste from foreign countries which is sent back later after being treated in La Hague, in Normandy. But these are not the most common loads,” says Michel, an SNCF worker since the 1980s. “Most of the wastes travelling on the rails are French.”

2 to 3 nuclear trains per day

They depart from France’s 18 nuclear power plants toward the reprocessing center in La Hague, on the Cotentin Peninsula. Some of the reprocessed wastes stay there, stored above ground. Others are sent off again. Uranium produced by reprocessing goes to Pierrelatte where it will be transformed further into a form that can be stored. Low and mid-level wastes are sent to Soulaine, in l’Aube. “In total, 500 nuclear trains, of which only ten per cent consist of imported wastes, circulate in France every year. That’s two or three every day!
Loaded by staff working for EDF or AREVA, the trains are then handled by SNCF staff. The railway workers have to connect rail cars in between them, and verify the condition of the brakes, assure that everything (tarps, doors, hatches) is in proper order, and inspect the hitches. “For a worker who works fast and well, it takes thirty minutes, half of which is spent very close to the train,” says someone familiar with the job. If there is a problem with the brakes, he might spend a lot of time there. “Sometimes he has to get under the car,” says Philippe Guiter, conductor and federal secretary of the union SUD-Rail. “If he can’t solve the problem by himself, an equipment specialist has to come.” If the car is not quickly repairable, it has to be unhitched and isolated. Then it is sent out to be repaired with its radioactive payload still on it.
The cars deemed fit to roll are towed to the destination, for several hours, by a conductor. In case of incident, a conductor has to get out of his cabin and inspect the length of the train in order to find the problem. “There are times when he’ll be in contact with the cars for 15 or 30 minutes, or longer,” says Michel. Railwaymen are not considered nuclear workers. The maximum dose for them is the same as for the general public: 1 millisievert (mSv) per year, above exposures to natural sources and medical treatments. There is no medical record-keeping of their exposures.
Nonetheless, they are exposed, in the course of their duties, to risks of irradiation and contamination. As Bruno Chareyron, engineer in nuclear physics and head of the laboratory for CRIIRAD (commission de recherche et d’information indépendante sur la radioactivité), describes it, “As for irradiation, certain emissions escape the containment structures.” Contamination consists of the deposit of radioactive materials outside the containment. “They leave becquerels on terrain where there aren’t any normally, such as on the rails on rainy days, for example.”

“Sometimes the guys from AREVA tell us, ‘That car there: don’t get too close to it.’”

In 1998, after the revelation of a significant contamination of “castor” cars (or beavers, the French nickname for the cars used for transporting radioactive waste) on the route between France and Germany, CRIIRAD won the right to conduct its own independent measurements.
According to the gamma rays and neutron emissions recorded, an SNCF employee who prepares six convoys per year, staying each time 15 minutes within one meter of the cars, can receive 675 microsieverts (μSv)[2], which is more than half the minimum annual dose authorized. CRIIRAD notes, “We are way above the dose considered negligible by European regulations, which is 10 μSv per year.” The values measured show that “the doses received annually by certain employees of the SNCF can surpass the maximum tolerable risk limit of 1000 μSv per year." And yet while these figures have been not well known until now,  CRIIRAD has discovered how little awareness of radioprotection there is among rail workers. In a station in Valognes, Normandy, in the winter, some workers huddle close to the beavers during their breaks for the warmth that they give off! These workers have without a doubt surpassed their 675 μSv per year. “It’s clear that no one was paying attention,” comments one staff manager. “I remember during certain operations they stopped to take photos in front of the beavers. Sometimes, the guys from AREVA told us, ‘That car there: don’t get too close, or work fast.’ Then they straightened up. But at the same time, they always told us that there was nothing to worry about, that it was made to be…”

Polemic on radiation risks

At the SNCF it is document RH0838 that addresses “risk of ionizing radiation.” The plans for preventing risks apply to “railway facilities involved in the transport of radioactive materials,” those which are found close to Tricastin or La Hague. In order to identify the risks which workers are exposed to, the SNCF asks the IRSN (Institut de radioprotection et sûreté nucléaire) to come up with protection measures appropriate for each type of convoy and job duty. These measures put in effect between 1998 and 2004 show a regard for the regulatory limits. One document states, “We verify that the maximum dose received over twelve months does not exceed 1 mSv per year, which was always the case until now.”
Measures realized on November 18, 2011 by a certified independent laboratory—The Association for the Control of Radioactivity in the West (ACRO)—on one convoy leaving for Germany confirmed that the doses were below the limit of 1mSv per year. But while the IRSN concludes that there is not a problem, ACRO thinks otherwise. “This limit of 1 mSv is one that aims to cover all the sources that a person is exposed to,” says Pierre Barbey, vice president of the laboratory. “When it’s a matter of exposure to one source, as in the case of the nuclear convoys, the CIPR (Commission international de protection radiologique, ICRP in the English acronym) recommends holding the limit down to 0.3 mSv per year. A railway worker who spends ten hours per year within two meters of these cars will exceed this limit.”
Asked about this question, the IRSN responded, “The railway workers have very little risk of exposure to other sources of ionizing radiation.” But according to Pierre Barbey, “Radioprotection is not merely a consideration of the regulatory limit. It is also, above all, the principle of optimization that obliges one to stay as much below the limits as is possible. The CIPR is very clear on this point.

Intermittent use of dosimeters

In the scope of SNCF’s prevention measures, certain staff are given dosimeters. How many are there? No one seems to know. Not at the SNCF (no response to this question), nor at the committees for health, safety and working conditions (CHSCT), charged with verifying enforcement of rules made to protect the health of workers. Reports on individuals’ dosimeters “are sent three times a year to the doctors in charge of following them,” according to the directory of communications for freight. But Philippe Guiter claims the reality is a bit different. “There are not enough doctors available to examine the dosimeters. And because they have different medical backgrounds, they can’t even make sense of them. They have to be trained in this area. The result? Some workers don’t even use them. They don’t see the point.”
The few railway workers who are often in proximity to radiation would prefer to have counters that show the dose rate, the type which shows the exposure in real time as opposed to the cumulative dose. This would alert them when rates are very high. “We think all the staff should have them, including conductors,” adds Philippe Guiter. According to the SNCF, the latter are not exposed due to “the fact of their distance from dangerous materials and their position in the train engine.” However, “the engine isn’t a confined space, and this worries certain staff. And certainly the conductors sometimes have to come down from the engine. In the autumn of 2010, one who was taking a train loaded with recycled fuel from La Hague to Germany had to walk the length of the train several times. He noticed that the police officers who accompanied the shipment all had dosimeters.” The length of time that workers are exposed can increase when there are problems. In February 1997, a load of irradiated fuel derailed in Apach station, at the French-German border. It took several hours to get the cars back on track.

AREVA assures that there is no danger

At the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labor) and at the CGT (General Confederation of Labor), there is confidence in the measures and statements of the SNCF. Eric Chollet, national secretary of the CFDT stresses, “It is hoped that management would be as careful with other health issues as they are with nuclear risks.” In the workplace, opinions are divided. “Management assures us there is nothing to worry about,” says Laurent, a conductor, “But with nuclear, it’s complicated. They always tell us there is no problem until there is a problem,” adds one of his colleagues. And in the stations where there is nothing but nuclear cargoes, one fears seeing the job roll on to someplace else if it has been a particularly “hot” object to deal with.
Everyone says he is “very attentive” and no one would be opposed to having extra measures in place. “If the tests of the SNCF could be confirmed by independent labs, that would be welcome,” concedes Gregory Laloyer, representative for the CGT at Rouen. SUD-Rail (a workers’ union), is very active on this matter and has requested additional tests on several occasions. “We are systematically refused,” regrets one union member. “The evaluation of the risk of contamination is left up to the sender,” argues the SNCF in a letter explaining its refusal. “It’s AREVA or EDF that assures there is no problem, upon departure and arrival. Isn’t that great? says Philippe Guiter sarcastically.
A certificate showing the absence of contamination in the rail cars, delivered by AREVA, is based on standards of the IRSN, which uses 1 mSv/year as a standard limit. But on AREVA sites, the rule is that containments “conform to international limits: 2 milliSieverts per hour (mSv/h) where the container contacts the vehicle, 0.1 mSv/h two meters from the vehicle.” Neither ACRO nor CRIIRAD has ever measured such high levels of radiation, ones at which a person would hit the maximum level within 30 minutes, in the immediate vicinity of the rail cars. “But this international regulation for transports is not in line with the public health guidelines in France,” protests Bruno Chareyron, from CRIIRAD. “In 1998 we asked for this to be reviewed, but we’ve never got a satisfactory reply.” (Basta Magazine contacted  AREVA and the SNCF but never received a response.)

Questions about the structural integrity of the rail cars

The SNCF has been called upon many times by various inspectors to review the way it evaluates the risks posed to workers by nuclear convoys. In March 2011, a labor inspector from the region of Ile-de-France ordered the company to “proceed with a new risk evaluation and to anticipate operational modes for responding to emergencies with this type of cargo.”
Formulated in 2011, these orders haven’t yet produced any effect. SUD-Rail wants stress tests for the beavers to be carried out. “They tell us that they can resist a fire of 800°C for half an hour. But Philippe Guiter responds, “In the Mont-Blanc tunnel fire in 1999, the temperature reached 1000°C, for several hours. And a nuclear convoy goes through an average of ten tunnels. As for crash strength, the beavers can supposedly withstand a fall of nine meters, but I’d like to see that tested.”
WISE (World Information Service on Energy) published a study in 2003 that raised questions about the shock resistance of the beavers. “In case of a collision involving a train transporting nuclear materials with a train transporting dangerous materials, the combined speed in the collision could exceed the resistance claimed for the beavers in the nine-meter drop test.”

Towards a privatization of nuclear transports?

“We don’t wish to get rid of these convoys,” says a conductor for the SNCF. “But we want good working conditions, without putting our health in danger.” All the rail workers’ unions state that dangerous materials, which include nuclear materials, should continue to be carried by rail “by the least dangerous means.” They stress also that this mission should be filled by a public service enterprise in which the time can be taken to guarantee safety. “And that there is the capability to take actions to protect workers,” adds Gregory Laloyer of the CGT.
The presence of private companies on the French rails concerns them a great deal. “The other day, I saw one worker, a guy working for a private contractor, arrive at the station. He hadn’t had time to check the brakes, and he didn’t even know what he was hauling. What will happen in the future if such people drive nuclear convoys which are for now still taken by the SNCF?”
“The transparency that we demand, for us and our colleagues, is also for passengers,” says Laurent, a conductor. “We believe that it is not acceptable that convoys carrying nuclear materials should be in transit on public routes during peak hours, especially in the Paris region,” adds Philippe Guiter. “We want the SNCF to remain as a top rank transport company which imposes no risk of being irradiated on workers or travelers.

Photo source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/greenpeace_nederland/5808817994/sizes/m/in/photostream/ 


[1] Certain names were changed at the request of persons interviewed.

[2] At a distance of one meter, the gamma dose rate is 31 μSv/hour. The neutron rate is 14 μSv/hour. A worker who handles six convoys in ten months, spending 15 minutes each time less than a meter from the cars, receives a dose of 675 μSv, or 0.675 mSv.
translation of:
Nolwenn Weiler

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