BLIGHT OF THE NUCLEAR OLDIES
A NUCLEAR disaster could hit Somerset
Western Daily Press 16th September 2005 (front page leader)
Jim Duffy is a worried man. For more than a decade he has been campaigning relentlessly against Hinkley B, the giant nuclear power station located just 11 miles from his home in the village of West Quantoxhead in Somerset. But now a landmark decision means that the life of the nuclear power station could be extended well beyond its current 2011 closure date. Mr Duffy, 52, fears that the longer the station is left open, the bigger the risk of a nuclear disaster on his doorstep.
"We are in danger of another [Windscale]," said Mr Duffy. "There are a million people living within 35 miles of Hinkley B, and all would be at risk in the event of a fuel fire and at worse a meltdown.
"We are very worried about Hinkley Point because it is the oldest of the operating advanced gas cooled reactors at the moment and we know from past history that the plant has weaknesses and is very fragile. Extending its life will only increase the risk."
According to leading experts, Mr Duffy has a valid point. Hinkley Point is one of eight advance-cooled gas reactors which independent regulators fear are at risk of developing cracks. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has raised concerns that graphite bricks surrounding Hinkley B's core are in danger of breaking down, which could ultimately result in overheating and radiation leaks.
Despite the warnings, a similar nuclear power station in Kent, Dungeness B, was yesterday given a seven-year life extension.
Bill Coley, chief executive of British Energy, told shareholders he is now keen to extend the life of other advance-cooled gas reactors, which include Hinkley B. He said: "This decision is not indicative of the potential for life extensions at other stations.
"I am determined we will pursue life extensions where safe and profitable with the potential to add further value to our shareholders." The debate over Hinkley Point reflects the dilemma facing the country.
Hinkley Point in Somerset and Oldbury in South Gloucestershire produce enough electricity to supply two cities the size of Bristol. Nationwide, nuclear power provides 23 per cent of Britain's energy, providing a crucial alternative to fossil fuels and helping the country come closer to meeting its carbon emission targets.
But the current generation of nuclear power stations are reaching the end of their shelf life. By 2020 it is thought that nuclear power will supply just seven per cent of the country's electricity, creating an "energy gap" which needs to be filled.
And while the industry may be in decline, it still employs around 2,000 people and injects an estimated £500million into the regional economy. As a result there is both political and economic pressure to keep nuclear power stations open as long as possible, which independent nuclear consultant John Large believes is a risky approach.
Nuclear power stations were originally built to last 25-30 years but are now being expected to last up to 40. Mr Large said: "Quite frankly it was folly to extend the nuclear power stations by so much. One year would have been acceptable, but at 10 years I'm not sure how the operator can substantiate so much. "At Hinkley Point you are reaching 30 years now, I would certainly be rather cautious about giving any extension."
Concerns have also been raised about the age of the Oldbury plant in South Gloucestershire. Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act suggest the graphite blocks protecting the core have lost more than a third of their weight, prompting fresh worries about their strength.
The claims have been strongly denied by British Nuclear Fuels plc.
Inevitably, the last nuclear plants in the West will have to be closed. The question remains whether new ones will be built in their place. The huge start-up costs suggest not. A nuclear power station takes a decade to build and costs £2billion, while the problem of nuclear waste remains.
Other experts point out that it would be easier to build on existing sites like Hinkley if the Government did decide to go ahead. Ian Fells, fellow at the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: "I would think Hinkley is high on the list of new nuclear power stations. Hinkley has already gone through the planning process and that could be revived."
At present, ministers remain tight-lipped on the issue, but environmental groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have raised strong objections.
One thing's for sure: Nuclear Britain may be in decline, but the debate about its future is unlikely to disappear in a hurry.