Natural and technological hazards - Environment in EU at the turn of the century (Chapter 3.8)

Since the late 1980s, natural hazards have had a bigger impact on the environment. Between 1990-96, economic losses due to floods and landslides were four times those in the whole of the preceding decade. As yet, there is no targeted policy to reduce natural hazards, although programmes such as EPOCH (European programme for climatology and natural hazards) have specifically addressed this source of risk. The present lack of integrated planning and management of human activities can increase their incidence and severity – particularly landslides.

EU has had measures on major industrial accidents in force since 1984. However, in spite of all measures already adopted, major accidents continue to occur in fixed installations of the process industry and over 300 accidents have been reported since 1984 by EU Member States to the European Commission’s Major Accident Reporting System (MARS) under the legal requirements of the ‘Seveso Directives’ (82/501 & 96/82/EEC). Since the rate of reporting major accidents to MARS is in good correspondence to the actual rate of occurrence of major accidents, the constant trend observed is an indication that many of the often seemingly trivial “lessons learned” from accidents have not yet been sufficiently evaluated and/or implemented in industry’s practices and standards.

Therefore, many efforts are still necessary to further reduce the risks related to major accidents from fixed industrial installations. On the other hand, since the industrial activities which give rise to most of the major accident risks are increasing in intensity in Europe, the risks of major accidents per unit of activity seem to have a slightly falling tendency. In contrast to industrial accidents in fixed installations, major oil spills due to marine transport accidents as well as offshore installation accidents have shown a clear downward trend. Information on the extent and location of technological hazards is generally improving, particularly as a result of the Seveso II Directive. As such, pre-arrangements can be made in emergency response plans. The problem of low frequency, high consequence events, however, remains a key issue for risk management.

Lack of sufficiently detailed, comparable information on the risks posed by certain types of nuclear establishments, including the treatment of waste, means the overall risk to the European environment from accidental releases of radionuclides, even if small, cannot be quantified. It is likely that the overall risk from nuclear accidents increased in the 1970s as more plants were commissioned – but has declined in the 1990s as older plants are taken out of service and building new ones has slowed. A gradual improvement in the overall risk of accidents is expected but the magnitude of the risk seems likely to remain at similar levels up to 2010. A complicating factor is the increasing deterioration of the older plants in Eastern Europe. Implementing improved safety plans for these reactors is delayed because of the lack of financial resources – despite significant outside assistance.

Public perception of various hazards and risks, and the influence of various pressure groups can be a major factor. So, sound information on current natural and technological hazards is essential. Important questions include: Which hazards are connected with chronic changes to the environment, such as global warming and sea level rise? Are human activities increasing the risk from various hazards?

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