Stop Hinkley Press Release

8 February 2005

Oldbury safety inspections hit by staff crisis

Safety inspections at Oldbury and other UK nuclear power stations have been hit by a near-record staff crisis at the National Installations Inspectorate. The regulators have had to cut back on front-line inspections to nuclear plants due to increased pressure on staff from added workloads, failure of a recruitment campaign and a consequent work-to-rule by the inspectors.

The reduction in safety checks has alarmed campaigners who view the ageing reactor at Oldbury as in need of more not less inspections following scares about its integrity.

Thirty five year old Oldbury nuclear power station has had one reactor out of commission since May due to inspectors' fears over its deteriorated graphite core. Even though the reactor core has been given the OK, the inspectors are so worried by inaccessible fatigue stress cracks in one of its turbines they will not yet allow it to restart. An inspection outage is due on its second reactor in the summer.

Misalignment due to a one centimetre movement in the 2,000 tonne graphite reactor cores of this type of reactor could trap fuel cans leading to a meltdown. Oldbury is known to have the worst graphite problem of all the first generation 'Magnox' reactors. Reactor 2, still operating at the plant, has been subject to Emergency Shut-Downs.

Jim Duffy, Shut Oldbury coordinator, said: "This is the worst time in years to cut down on safety inspections. If the inspectors are jumpy at the risk of a nuclear accident we should all be scared. This reactor, run by a cash-strapped company, could unleash untold harm. For public safety it should at least be mothballed until the full inspection service is possible."

Notes: See Nuclear Installations Inspectorate website for report by Lawrence Williams, former NII Chief Inspector

Nuclear watchdog exposes safety crisis

Staff shortages, heavy workloads and industrial disputes put power stations at risk

By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor, The Herald (Scotland)

THE safety of Britain's nuclear power stations is being put at risk by staff shortages, heavy workloads and a prolonged industrial dispute at the government's nuclear watchdog. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), which guards against accidents and spillages at over 20 nuclear sites around the country, is facing one of the worst crises in its history. It is struggling to cope with mounting demands for safety regulation at the same time as suffering a severe shortage of nuclear inspectors.

Front-line inspections of nuclear plants have had to be cut back, while a backlog of other work has built up.

"Prolonged reduction of inspection will undermine our ability to effectively monitor the safety performance of the nuclear industry," warned Laurence Williams, who has just quit as the NII's chief inspector. He said that the inspectorate's increasing workload is "starting to detract from our regulatory oversight".

Inspectors are having to help set up the government's Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in April, to re-organise the major nuclear companies, British Nuclear Fuels and British Energy, and to combat new threats from terrorists. But at the same time the NII is having serious difficulties in recruiting new inspectors.

An advertising campaign last year failed to attract many applicants, leaving the inspectorate, as at February 1, 14 inspectors short of its target of 179. "There is a growing backlog of work that is being delayed or not being done and this, together with new work arising from industry programmes, concerns me, "Williams said. He left the NII at the end of December and is due to start work with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority this month.

The crisis at the NII has been deepened by an unpublicised work-to-rule by nuclear inspectors over the last 18 months. Backed by their trade union, Prospect, they have been refusing to work any unpaid overtime in protest against a 10% drop in their real rates of pay over the last 10 years. Their industrial action is part of a wider dispute by all inspectors at the government's Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which includes the railway and hazardous installations inspectorates as well as the NII.

"There is a huge amount of frustration within the HSE," said Prospect's negotiations officer, Mike Macdonald. "Over time there will be a rundown of the service provided and the reputation of the HSE as an employer. This undermines the credibility of the NII which is crucial for safety." He confessed to being "jumpy" about the risk of a nuclear accident or a leak of radioactive waste. "Even when the impact is very low, the general public is extremely anxious," he said.

Macdonald attacked the Treasury for being "insensitive" to the plight of inspectors, who earn between £40,000 and £54,000 a year, less than equivalent safety engineers in the nuclear operating companies. Macdonald warned that his members would soon have to choose between accepting a pay cut or escalating their industrial action which might jeopardise safety.

The combination of pressures afflicting the NII have sparked anxiety and alarm outside the nuclear industry. "It is important that the nuclear industry continues to be regulated effectively and frontline inspection is a key part of that," said Ian Jackson, an expert nuclear consultant based in Cheshire.

Pete Roche, a consultant to the environmental group Greenpeace, said it was "extremely frightening" that the NII had cut its inspections of nuclear plants. He argued that inspections should be increasing because of the cracks that had been recently discovered in the graphite bricks that surround reactor cores. Unexpected graphite cracking has been discovered by British Energy at the Hartlepool nuclear station in England.

There are also fears that cracking might shorten the lives of Scottish nuclear stations at Torness in East Lothian and Hunterston in North Ayrshire, though this has been played down by British Energy. "Any reduction in a station's lifetime has such serious financial implications for the company that we need a strong regulator to make sure that safety remains paramount. It mustn't be sidelined by short-term economic considerations," Roche said.

Other nuclear sites inspected by the NII in Scotland are the Dounreay complex at Caithness and the reactors being decommissioned at Chapelcross in Dumfries and Galloway. Nuclear inspectors also monitor activities at military nuclear facilities, including the Rosyth naval dockyard on the Firth of Forth and the nuclear submarine bases on the Firth of Clyde. In order to combat the staff shortages, the NII said it is having to keep inspectors working beyond their normal retirement age.

It has also launched a new recruitment campaign aimed at bringing in 17 new inspectors. The government minister of state for work, Jane Kennedy, has been told by the NII's new acting chief inspector, Dr Mike Weightman, that industrial action has reduced front-line activities but "this has not resulted in an inadequate level of nuclear regulatory oversight to date."

The minister has also been kept informed of the staffing and workload problems facing the NII, and plans to discuss them further, an NII spokesman said. "NII management are continuously re-prioritising the work done by inspectors to ensure that safety-critical issues are dealt with."

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