Western Morning News, JASON GROVES LONDON EDITOR, 18 October 2006

Anti-nuclear campaigners have called for the Westcountry's only nuclear power station to be closed for good - after serious cracks were discovered in reactor pipes

British Energy yesterday confirmed that one of the two reactors at Hinkley Point B in Somerset had been shut down for emergency repairs in the middle of last month after cracks were found in boiler tubes. The plant's second reactor has been placed on reduced power this week and will be closed down shortly to allow engineers to deal with a similar problem. Identical problems were first identified at Hinkley Point's sister station Hunterston B, in Scotland, last month.

British Energy last night insisted that although the cracks were "at the high end of the range previously experienced", the problem was "not an issue of public safety".

But local campaigners warned that the cracks were a sign that the ageing plant, which is due to be decommissioned in five years, had come to the end of its useful life.

Jim Duffy, of the Stop Hinkley group, said the faults were a clear signal that the plant was no longer safe. Mr Duffy said the cracks could have allowed steam to escape into the reactor with potentially catastrophic results. "It could destroy the reactor, with consequences that are unthinkable for Somerset and the Westcountry," he said.

"It has got to be shut down now - this is a dangerous reactor with two sets of cracks in the core and in the boiler. It also throws into complete chaos the plan for a new reactor on the site. The Government has got to rethink seriously and look at filling the gap with gas or renewables."

Hinkley Point generates electricity with a value of about £500,000 a day and its temporary closure represents a serious financial headache for British Energy. The closure announcements saw almost £800 million - 25 per cent - wiped off the firm's share price as investors questioned future revenues. The shutdown could also create serious problems this winter when energy supplies are already predicted to be exceptionally tight for a second year running.

A spokesman for British Energy was unable to say when the Hinkley Point B's two reactors would be fully operational again. But the repair work is difficult and potentially hazardous and some observers have estimated the plant could remain shut until February next year.

The British Energy spokesman rejected suggestions that the cracks could have led to a serious nuclear accident. "This is an issue about the efficiency of the boilers, not public safety," he said. "Our indicators are well within safety limits. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate could and would shut us down if they had any concerns about public safety." He also insisted Hinkley Point would reopen once the repair work was continued, adding that there was "no suggestion" the plant would be decommissioned early.

The problems represent a serious blow to the Government's hopes of selling off the Government's 65 per cent stake in British Energy, from which Gordon Brown had hoped to raise £3 billion.

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