1 August 2009

Two faces of the nuclear industry

By Marguerite Finn

Is nuclear power Janus faced? The two faces were juxtaposed on the same platform of a special meeting of the Sizewell Stakeholder Group (SSG) about the worrying leak at Sizewell-A in 2007. Briefings were given by current and past Site Directors of the station, and also by the joint authors of the only report on the accident from Nuclear Installation Inspectorate (NII) that anyone has been able to acquire.

It is beyond question that the then Site Director, Bob Kury, Chief Engineer Paul Wilkinson and their staff dealt with the emergency immediately and competently, minimising the risk to the public. We owe them a debt of gratitude.

But the NII Report revealed a shambolic system of Control and Instrumentation (C&I), which had gone unchecked by NII Inspectors and previous site operators. C&I has been described as the "cerebral cortex" of a nuclear power station. It governs systems that monitor and control the station's performance – including computerised safety systems. It was evident that in January 2007, some C&I at Sizewell-A had been allowed to break down.

Most readers will know that the radioactive leak was only discovered when a contractor made an unscheduled visit to the laundry room to wash some clothes and just happened to notice water from the cooling pond leaking on to the laundry room floor. As much as 40,000 gallons of radioactive water had spilled out of a 15ft long split in a pipe – a pipe which the original contractor incorrectly installed with thinner than specified walls made from PVC instead of ABS. There was no record of this plumbing ever being inspected by the NII.

The Report confirmed that radionuclides CS-137 and Tritium were discharged into the sea through the storm drain. It also revealed that a drain in the laundry toilet floor had discharged some radioactive water into the local sewage works. The Central Processing Unit failed and a new pond alarm system, which had been in place for months, had not been connected properly and did not work.

I was not re-assured by the pin-stripped casuistry of the representatives of the NII – and by extension that of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) – or their approach to safety in the highly dangerous nuclear industry. They spent a lot of time defending their decision not to prosecute Magnox South (the owners of the station), glossing over many of the dangers listed in the Report and trying to exonerate the NII for failing to detect past safety lapses prior to the event.

Turning to new nuclear build in general, the government has asked the NII to do a Generic Design Assessment (GDA) on two types of new reactor against a pressing time line. They have found the C&I on safety of one reactor design to be far from satisfactory; but rather than missing the government deadline, they propose to allow the safety problems to be addressed later - ticking boxes on time being more important to them than public safety.

Finnish regulators have already raised concerns about the very similar Olkiluoto reactor's C&I systems and France's own attempt at Flamanville to build the same type of reactor as is planned for the UK is also beset by some C&I problems troubling the French nuclear regulators. In fact, both reactors are so behind schedule and over budget that Areva (building the Finnish reactor) is unwilling to predict when they will be finished and working.

We are unlikely to see new nuclear reactors in the UK any time soon – for which we should be glad, given the manifest safety problems at nuclear installations. As the Rev John Pomfret (1667-1702) said: "And who would run, that’s moderately wise, A certain danger for a doubtful prize?"

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