Israeli Train Electrification Plan May Be Scrapped Due to Radiation

Project would decrease air and noise pollution, but excess radiation could derail it.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The project to electrify Israel's trains, which has been considered one of the most important transportation projects of recent years, may be delayed or even scrapped if a solution to the problem of the radiation from the electrical system is not found. This week the Environmental Protection Ministry informed Israel Railways that the radiation data for the electrification do not conform to the requirements of the permit and it will have to be canceled, which could jeopardize the entire project.

Israel Railways is planning to operate the train system in the coming years by means of electricity instead of the diesel fuel currently used. This would decrease air and noise pollution and enable faster and more efficient train transportation with a larger passenger capacity.

To implement the program, the Israel Railways management is advancing a special master plan for which it was required to prepare a survey of the electrification's expected effect on the environment. The survey had to show data on the radiation during the operation of the trains. Two months ago members of the Return the City to Haifa organization claimed that according to the survey, the expected radiation would exceed the level to which the Environmental Protection Ministry agreed in the permit it issued.

Last Wednesday representatives of Israel Railways held a meeting with the Ministry of Environmental Protection on the survey's most recent findings. In the discussion it became clear to ministry professionals that the strength of the electrical current would be several times higher than that stipulated in the permit, and therefore the rate of radiation would also rise. They informed Israel Railways that the permit is no longer in force.

This means Israel Railways will have to find a way to decrease the rate of radiation. Alternatively, it will have to persuade the Environmental Protection Ministry to be less strict in the requirements for a permit, something the ministry is currently not prepared to do.

Restrictions tightened

Two years ago the ministry issued a permit that required a safety zone of 12 meters on either side of the tracks where radiation would be restricted. Over time the ministry has reduced the allowable radiation limit by more than half - from 10 milliGauss (units of radiation ) to 4 milliGauss - following recommendations from the Health Ministry.

Along their routes, the trains are supposed to run close to buildings and streets in a number of cities, first and foremost Haifa. In that city citizens have organized against the project because of what they view as radiation risks, and because the electricity lines will impede the city's development toward the sea.

Israel Railways responded: "It is regrettable and ironic that environmental organizations are acting to delay a project that will end the polluting diesel era and move Israel Railways into the era of environmentally friendly electricity, as is common in developed countries. Israel Railways acted and planned the electricity grid in accordance with the instructions received from the Ministry of Environmental Protection (10 milliGuass ), and a radiation threshold was set similar to the target in Switzerland, which is the strictest in the Western world.

"The adoption of a more strict radiation threshold (4 milliGauss ) is unparalleled anywhere in the entire world," the statement continued. "It must be stressed that the decision on such a radiation threshold will have far-reaching effects and repercussions in the cost of the project paid for by the public's money and on the electricity economy in Israel, all this without proof of any damage from the radiation."

An illustration showing what the train tracks in Haifa would look like once the trains run on electricity. Credit: Vazana Architects

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