SERIOUS RISKS IN NUCLEAR INDUSTRY
Western Daily Press, 2nd June 2008
Nigel Cann's zeal for nuclear expansion at Hinkley Point, Somerset, is not surprising, given his role as director of Hinkley B, but there are other sides to the argument.
His reactor has not been "generating electricity safely" for its 32-year life. Accidental releases of radiation have occurred throughout that time, including one episode in the 1980s where radioactive carbon dioxide gas escaped, with claims by a nuclear consultant at the time that the accident was second only to Windscale in severity. Human error seemed to be the trigger.
Hinkley B's construction in the 1970s was found to have been flawed with systematic "bodge" welding to steel pipes owned up to by a former welder. History repeats itself as the new European Pressurised Reactors (EPR), expected to be built in Somerset , have been afflicted with construction faults on two sites in Finland and France.
The faults have ranged from concrete foundations having the wrong concrete mix to steelwork having been badly welded by under-qualified sub-contractors.
Work at the Flamanville site was halted this week by the French regulators.
It's astonishing that, as Mr Cann says, Hinkley B has been given a life extension to 2016, given a catalogue of serious problems. Its corroded and cracked reactor core has suffered an unexpected weight loss of 25-26 per cent in the worst affected areas, making reactor fuel overheating more likely with a fuel fire a worst-case scenario.
THE crucially placed network of boiler tubes alongside the damaged reactor, and within the same pressurised housing, was discovered to require rewelding in an unexpected exercise that put the reactor out for eight months up to May last year.
So fragile is the partially repaired system that output has been reduced by 40 per cent.
A series of burst boiler tubes could wreak havoc with the degraded reactor core through a pressure surge.
Worse still, the reactor is strangely not equipped with its "last resort" shutdown system. This would "hold down" the reactor if the safety control rods failed to function by becoming lodged in crooked or damaged channels.
The second defence of nitrogen or water injection into the reactor could fail if the problem includes an opening where these radiation dampeners could pour out again. And the last system, known as "boron beads", which would neutralise the reactor, is bizarrely and inexplicably missing!
So much for the industry being "quite rightly more closely regulated than any other industry", as Mr Cann puts it. The regulation seems very lightweight.
The risk from nuclear power, studiously avoided in his letter, includes the health of populations living downwind from the reactor. Studies we have published have shown extra breast cancer, leukaemia and infant deaths in the nearest downwind town of Burnham-on-Sea.
The Hinkley response, aired at British Energy's Cannington meeting, was that the "numbers are small". At least here was a tacit admission of guilt. I wonder how the nuclear sums would add up if affected families were to sue the industry, as is now occurring in America .
Well, the undeniable global threat of climate change could be argued to be more important than the pain and death of any number of local individuals. If so, this should be debated.
But a weakness in the nuclear argument was put by the Government's own advisers on climate change, the Sustainable Development Commission.
It said that replacing all our existing reactors could reduce our carbon emissions by a paltry four per cent (this figure was also hidden at the back of the Government's last desperate consultation on nuclear power, referred to by Mr Cann).
On the other hand, cheap and safe energy conservation measures alone could axe our carbon output by a massive 30 per cent. Renewables could help this figure substantially and be brought on more quickly than nuclear.
ELECTRICITE de France, which Mr Cann supports building Hinkley C, has shown its colours in the recent buyout of the West Hinkley wind farm.
Although nuclear supporters claim to be in support of renewable energy and energy conservation, as Mr Cann suggests, the industry's massive buying power has elbowed out Somerset 's best hope of a decent, clean renewables project.
And Mr Cann helped to torpedo it with his spurious objections to the local council that accidental "blade throw" from a wind turbine 500 metres away could damage the reactor he claims can "withstand the impact of a potential terrorist attack". Which is it, Mr Cann?
On the subject of security, he argues that Hinkley's "dedicated armed police force" will protect us from the unthinkable consequences of a terrorist attack.
But experts at the time of 9/11 said all nuclear reactors were vulnerable. I have yet to hear a cogent argument that a jumbo jet loaded with fuel could not obliterate sensitive parts of a reactor, such as its cooling ponds.
The new EPR will store sufficient "hot" spent fuel for 20 Chernobyls. It's difficult to think that even dedicated armed policemen could do anything against a determined attack.
While dismissing the thorny problem of nuclear waste, Mr Cann failed to say how long nuclear waste remains toxic.
With a half-life of 25,000 years, plutonium will be around and needing to be sealed from our environment for one million years as it slowly degrades.
Future generations are now, by default, forced to accept this legacy while running the risk of it leaking into waterways. It's interesting no community, despite huge Government bribes, has stepped forward to embrace this risk. No country has yet capped off on its deep repositories, and the US has belatedly discovered a geological fault line under its planned, but not yet agreed, Yucca Mountain repository.
I think Mr Cann goes too far when he boasts everyone in the industry is "proud of their contribution to the UK ". There are too many serious fault lines in his risky and polluting industry.