About UNEP UNEP Offices News Centre Publications Events Awards Milestones UNEP Store
GEO-3: GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT OUTLOOK  
UNEP Website GEO Home Page

Major human-caused disasters

Human-caused disasters cause more human fatalities and economic losses than natural disasters in Europe. Despite overall higher technological and safety levels in Europe, the number of industrial accidents in the European Union continues to rise (EC undated). In 1997, there were 37 major industrial accidents — the highest annual number since records began in 1985 (EEA 1999). In contrast to accidents in fixed installations, major oil spills from marine transport and offshore installation accidents have shown a downward trend (ITOPF 2000) although the total number of oil spills appears to be increasing (EEA 2001b).

Helicopter sprays water on one of the forest fires that periodically plague southern European countries such as Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Slovenia and Spain; fires are also common in the Siberian region of the Russian Federation

Source: UNEP, Rougier, Topham Picturepoint

It is likely that the overall risk from nuclear accidents increased in the 1970s as more plants were commissioned but declined in the 1990s as older plants were taken out of service and the building of new ones either slowed or was completely abandoned due to public pressure. However, quantifying the risk from accidental releases of radionuclides is not possible due to lack of sufficiently detailed, comparable information. A widespread campaign on increasing the safety of new and already functioning civil nuclear reactors, especially in CEE countries, was catalysed by the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union. Significant resources have been allocated to increasing nuclear safety at nuclear processing plants (for example, €838 million was spent by the European Commission between 1991 and 1998 (EC 2001)). However, a complicating factor is the increasing deterioration of the older nuclear power plants in the Russian Federation and Lithuania built to a similar design to the Chernobyl reactor.

Analyses of major industrial accidents indicate that component failure and operator error are the two most common immediate causes but the dominant underlying causes identified were poor safety and environmental management (Drogaris 1993, Rasmussen 1996). The age of process plants is a further factor as the probability of ‘wear-out’ failure increases with age (M&M Protection Consultants 1997). Lack of expenditure on safety and environmental management, and operating plants past their design life, are often a result of pressure from shareholders wishing to increase profitability, although this may result in major losses in the long run. However, they also reveal gaps in regulation and monitoring. The mining accident at Baia Mare, Romania, in January 2000 served as a rather sobering reminder of the shortcomings in enforcement of environmental regulations in the countries of Eastern Europe (see box).

Baia Mare: analysis of a mining accident

At 22:00 on 30 January 2000, a dam wall failed at a mine tailings reclamation facility at Baia Mare in northwestern Romania, spilling 100 000 m3 of wastewater polluted with cyanide into the Tisa river and then the Danube, eventually entering the Black Sea, by which time it had become significantly diluted. The spill devastated large numbers of plant and wildlife species in the river systems.

The Baia Mare Task Force, set up to investigate, reported that faults in the design of the operating plant, including inadequate construction of the dams, contributed to the accident. The key problem was believed to be the ineffectiveness of the permitting and enforcement authorities. The permitting process was over-complex and the Task Force concluded that the original environmental impact assessment was flawed. Furthermore, no measures were established to deal with an emergency, and monitoring of the water level in the tailings pond where the dam broke was inadequate.

Source: BMTF 2000