Stop Hinkley Press release

Hinkley safety case 'weak'

23rd March 2005

Campaigners are voicing deepening concern over the continued running of Hinkley Point 'B' following disclosures that the plant may be suffering from dangerous cracks in its twin reactor cores.

The New Scientist revealed today that the safety regulators view Hinkley's safety case as 'weak' and require the operators to answer its questions in depth through thorough examinations during its outage later this year.

If the answers are not satisfactory it could mean an early closure for the nuclear reactor.

The report shows that the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate are concerned about errors discovered in computer modelling about the predicted development of the cracks in the Advance Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR). The cracks could cause local overheating and the discharge of radiation and even the collapse of the reactor. New evidence shows the cracks can develop years earlier than expected. The much newer AGR at Hartlepool was found to have developed the worrying cracks in its graphite reactor core in November.

The news comes the day after the sudden resignation of British Energy's Chief Executive, Mike Alexander, who left the post with no explanation after only two years.

Jim Duffy, speaking for Stop Hinkley said, "These cracks could be present already and posing a significant risk. British Energy should bring forward their outage and shut the reactors now for the sake of public confidence. Our group will press for bosses to be convicted of corporate manslaughter if there is a serious accident here. Possibly the chiefs have already seen the writing on the wall and are starting to leave before things get worse for this industry which is always verging on bankruptcy."

New Scientist, 26 March 2005 by Rob Edwards

Core cracks may force shutdown of UK reactors

Reactors in many UK nuclear power stations are in danger of developing cracks in their graphite cores. This could force some plants to close down earlier than expected, dealing a blow to the idea that nuclear power can become a "green" option in the fight against global warming.

Documents obtained by New Scientist under the UK's Freedom of Information Act have revealed unsuspected problems with the country's ageing advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs). Government nuclear inspectors say they have uncovered weaknesses in the safety analyses carried out by British Energy, the company that runs the reactors.

The UKs 14 AGRs provide nearly a fifth of the country's electricity. The graphite brick that form part of their core help sustain the nuclear reaction by slowing down fast-moving neutrons. They also play a vital part in maintaining the core's structural integrity.

While it has long been known that irradiation and thermal stress would eventually cause the graphite bricks to crack, new estimates suggest these cracks could develop up to two years earlier than thought, according to British Energy, in a letter last August, the company warned the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) of 'possible errors' in the computer models used to predict the onset of cracking.

In December, British Energy found cracks in the graphite bricks at one of the two AGRs in Harlepool, County Durham. Cracking is now suspected in six other reactors at Heysham in Lancashire, Hinkley Point in Somerset and Hunterston in Ayrshire.

Widespread cracks in these bricks could cause the core to distort, overheat and leak radiation. To ensure this does not happen, the NII has asked British Energy to conduct more inspections of the bricks. This means that reactors may have to be closed down for maintenance more frequently and for longer, at a cost in lost income of £250,000 a day for each reactor that is shut down.

Two reactors at Hinkley Point and Hunterston are scheduled for maintenance shutdowns later this year. In letters sent in February, the NII told the stations' directors that their safety analyses of the graphite cores were 'weak', and demanded answers to 47 technical questions about cracking before it will permit the reactors to restart.

British Energy has warned its shareholders that graphite cracking could kill its hopes of extending the lives of AGRs, and that there may have to be 'early closures'. The reactors, which were built in the 1970s and 1980s, were expected to operate for 35 years, and not start closing until after 2010. British Energy stresses that, at present, no reactors have been shut down because of the graphite cracking. "The implication is one of periodic monitoring and inspection within our normal programme of planned maintenance shutdowns," a spokeswoman says.

Critics of nuclear power argue that the safety and economic implications are more serious. The worst-case scenario is that cracking could cause part of the core to collapse and the reactor to be written-off, says John Large, an independent nuclear engineering expert.

Pete Roche, a Greenpeace consultant, says graphite cracking highlights the unreliability of nuclear power. "Generic problems can shut down several large nuclear stations all at the same time," he says. "So they are not the best solution to combat climate change."

The Guardian 22nd March

Mike Alexander, architect of British Energy's recently completed restructuring, has unexpectedly quit the company after just two years. His job as chief executive at Britain's biggest electricity generator has gone to Bill Coley, a 61-year-old non-executive director of the company who retired from Duke Energy, the American power group, in 2003. British Energy gave little indication as to why Mr Alexander had quit.

The Guardian, Herald, Independent, Telegraph, FT, Star, Mail, Express, Times 22nd March 2005 & London Evening Standard 21st March 2005

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