“Two cultures of risk, natural and technical, continue to coexist”

LIndustrial activity is inherently dangerous. Its design, operation and maintenance methods can deteriorate and lead to a major accident. Vulnerable by itself, industrial activity is also vulnerable through the impact of natural hazards, as numerous events have shown: in 2011, an earthquake and a tsunami led to the Fukushima nuclear accident ; In 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused oil spills and chemical releases in Texas…

In France, the inventory of technological incidents and accidents from the Industrial Risk and Pollution Analysis Office (Barpi) identified, in 2021, 80 events resulting from natural factors (wind, intense heat, rain, lightning, flooding). These technological side effects of natural hazards are called by professionals "NaTech accidents"., contraction between “natural” and “technological”.

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This concept was proposed in 1994 by two North American researchers, Pamela Sands Showalter and Mary Fran Myers (“ Natural Disasters in the United States as Release Agents of Oil, Chemicals, or Radiological Materials Between 1980‐1989: Analysis and Recommendations », Risk Analysis, No. 14 (2), 1994). The article goes almost unnoticed when it is published, but could go down in history, as climate change accelerates the occurrence of a series of industrial disasters caused by one or more natural hazards.

Significant awareness

At the time, the two authors demonstrated that science and politics treat natural and technological disasters as distinct entities, and that, despite the obvious increase in industrial accidents caused by natural hazards, awareness of the occurrence of damage particularly aggravated is non-existent. They explain this deficiency by the absence of regulations that recognize the ability of a natural hazard to cause a release of hazardous substances, an absence that does not encourage preparation for such events.

About ten years later, in France, the National Institute for the Industrial Environment and Risks took up the concept and, within the framework of collaborative European research, defined a doctrine based on three pillars: a multidisciplinary, since the knowledge of some is not that of others, and it is advisable to combine them; a change of scale, because the territories concerned are extraordinarily vast due to the fact that a chemical or radioactive element spreads rapidly and widely; a necessary change in the regulations to hope to make the "NaTech" risk an industrial risk like any other. The Seveso III directive, which came into force in 2015, specifies, without using the term "NaTech", that the identification and analysis of accident risks within the framework of the safety report (or "hazard study") of A Seveso-type establishment must in particular take account of natural causes (earthquakes, floods, etc.).

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