17 March 2007

The duty of care in a nuclear world

By Marguerite Finn

I attended a meeting last week, which left me feeling decidedly uneasy. The meeting of the Sizewell Stakeholder Group, included local councillors, workers from Sizewell A and B nuclear power stations, representatives of the Environment Agency, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and members of the public.

Bob Kury, Site Director of Sizewell A, reported on the incident on 7 January when 40,000 gallons of radioactively-contaminated water flowed out of a storage 'pond' following a pipe fracture. Accidents will happen and this one was dealt with quickly – although 10,000 gallons of contaminated water was discharged into the sea - passing the buck to the environment.

The accident itself was not the main cause of my anxiety – it was something much more fundamental. It seemed to me that the Government's universal principle of duty of care had broken down. The immediate cause of the accident was a pipe fracture - the wrong sort of plastic, not built to specification - but the resulting leak was not noticed because the alarms were "frozen due to an unrecognised system error" and the operator was completely oblivious to the danger. Mr Kury admitted some of the pipework was not accessible and that sections of critical pipework had never been inspected! He also said the operators needed better training.

Decommissioning operations at Sizewell A have been suspended until the completion of the safety review. The Nuclear Regulator recommended all alarms be reconditioned and pipework surveyed and replaced where necessary - in all nuclear reactors of the same age and type. Astonishingly, it was considered necessary to issue an instruction ensuring that in future, pond maintenance work was put on the schedule! The Nuclear Regulator commented: "We regard the engineering aspects as very serious indeed".

Sizewell is not the worst offender. At Sellafield in Cumbria, it was discovered, in 2006, that 83,000 litres of radioactive material, containing 20 tonnes of uranium and plutonium had been spilling out into a concrete containment tank undetected for nine months! Staff misread the instruments on ten separate occasions, dismissing the evidence of a leak as a "calculation error" because the volumes involved were so large and, anyway, it could not happen in a new plant!

On 23 February 2007, the Government quietly released the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate report into the Sellafield accident. The Report found a lack of a "challenge culture" at British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) and that the Sellafield plant "condoned the ignoring of alarms" and that safety equipment was not kept in effective working order. Where was the 'duty of care' in all this – the responsibility to protect workers and the public from the fall-out of a nuclear accident?

How did the nuclear industry fall victim to such an endemic attitude of carelessness and complacency? Has the cult of the individual – so assiduously reinforced by television's daily dose of because you're worth it blandishments – finally separated us from the notion of a common reality? By adopting a defiant attitude to the dangers of nuclear power and the certainty of global warming, do we think the individual has become immortal?

One keen supporter of nuclear energy, Dr David Fishlock, put the duty of care firmly in the hands of the government. Giving evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee investigating the possibility of underground nuclear storage, he said: "There are many things for which quite legitimately the public looks to the government to make up the mind of 56 million people. Nuclear energy is a matter that is largely in government hands and is a matter for government decision".

Emphasising the duty this implied, Mohammed ElBaradei, from the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned Britain not go ahead with a new generation of nuclear power stations until it had a "clear and robust" plan for dealing with the twin problems of decommissioning and nuclear waste. Instead of exercising this care, however, the government exorcised the IAEA's advice as "plain wrong"!

Last night, the health service ombudsman found the government guilty of "maladministration" for failing to organise proper compensation for the thousands of vulnerable people who were unlawfully charged for NHS care and who were obliged to sell their homes to pay for a nursing home place that should have been free. Where is the Government's care here?

The International Expert Commission of the EU and Russian atomic power experts are currently meeting at the nuclear power plant in Smolensk in a bid to establish "a stronger fundamental culture for safety" when generating nuclear power – showing they have learnt from the errors of Chernobyl. Let us hope that BNFL will attend.