This month in the Romanian city of Drobeta-Turnu Severin, Mehedinţi County situated at the Danube border between Romania & Serbia, there were a series of protests against the lack of interest from the government for the controlled shutdown of the local chemical plant and for the financial compensations of the workers. This is not the first time that people have taken to the streets to vent their frustrations; this issue has intensified since the parent company of the plant has entered into a period of insolvency last year, in which numerous solutions have been negotiated but without a clear result. At the present, the situation can be considered a national problem for Romania, but the substance that the chemical plant produces is considered to be a strategic resource because of its potential use in nuclear programs. (countries typically apply for the IAEA – International Atomic Energy Agency, which administers safeguards and material accounting regarding heavy water)
The Girdler Sulfide Procces plant called ROMAG-PROD is part of the Directed Autonomous Company for Nuclear Activities (Romanian: RAAN - Regia Autonomă pentru Activităţi Nucleare), and deals with the production of heavy water, a substance needed for neutron moderation in nuclear power plants and it’s considered to have the largest production capacity in the world. It sometimes exports controlled quantities of heavy water.
As part of the company there is also a thermo power plant called ROMAG-TERMO, situated some distance from the Mehedinţi county seat, that provides the necessary steam for the chemical plant, electric power to the National Grid System and heat for the populace of Severin in the winter as well as hot water for household use. (see more information regarding the technical aspects at http://www.raan.ro/en/ )
There is a vicious circle here that can affect not only the local job security market but it can develop into a socio-economic problem if a solution is not presented in some time. The fact that a nuclear-grade material is produced here only intensifies the problem by the possibility of hydrogen sulfide (a gas used at the facility) being released because of work stress generated by the company financial situation. Taking into consideration that the location is near the border with another country, the possibility of a gas release can become a trans-frontier problem. (with a little wind, this can become a environmental incident). Let us see why this situation, is the untold story of Europe’s last heavy water.
Short History of Heavy Water
In World War II, the Norwegian hydroelectric plant Vermok from Rjukan, Telemark, became the site of what we now know as the Norwegian Heavy Water Sabotage, a plan by the British Special Operation Executive to prevent Germany of acquiring materials for a atomic bomb. (as we now know, Germany was not planning such a production). Some barrels of heavy water, have been lost, with only a few being recovered.
The objective was not the plant itself, but a additional building which contained the production of heavy water, a substance needed for nuclear technology. Heavy water or deuterium oxide (D2O) is a form of water that contains a larger amount than normal of hydrogen isotope deuterium rather the common protium isotope which is found in normal water. As a curiosity, heavy water was used by the United States of America & Canada for the Manhattan Project, thus facilities were built to make production as efficient as possible.
The importance of heavy water for Europe
There is a argument saying that the eventual shutdown will affect not only the local population, but Romania & Europe as well. This is not without a fundamental basis, because the need for a safe neutron moderator has been a constant since the Chernobyl Incident. The re-acquaintance of the World with nuclear energy in 2011 at Fukushima, has determined certain European countries to enact nuclear phase-out policies, but it appears that the change from a nuclear energy based country to a potential green energy one is not a easy ride.
Romania has a heavy water reserve for its CANDU design (Canadian nuclear uranium) nuclear plant, which is supplied by the chemical plant from Mehedinţi county, but with the current situation, the reserve is limited (after it’s done, import time, but from where?).
As regards Europe, the only countries that ever produced heavy water, were Norway (see the Norwegian Heavy Water Sabotage), France (1950s & 1960s), and the Soviet Union (Ukraine, suspended).
At the present, the only countries that have the capacity to produce heavy water are India, The United States of America, Canada, Iran, Pakistan, Argentina (some even export to European countries).
In the context of European energy independence, the fact that one of Europe’s last, if not the last, chemical facility capable of producing heavy water is almost near in entering shutdown procedure means that European countries with nuclear power plants will need to import more quantities of heavy water for the stability of their nuclear energy sector (until they’ll go green, of course).
What Europe has developed in its own borders, now it crumbles down into another item on a country’s shopping list.