Burnham-On-Sea, Somerset

Published: July 5, 2006
New document reveals hidden fears about Hinkley Point power station

Hinkley Point power station, as seen from Burnham-On-Sea

Government nuclear inspectors have raised serious questions over the safety of Hinkley Point B power station, near Burnham-On-Sea, according to national reports in the national press on Wednesday (July 5th).

Safety assessments obtained under Freedom of Information legislation show the Nuclear Safety Directorate (NSD) has issued warnings over the deterioration of reactor cores at Hinkley Point B and several other British nuclear plants.

The directorate also criticises British Energy, which operates 13 advanced gas-cooled nuclear reactors including Hinkley. According to the papers, the company does not know the extent of the damage to the reactor cores, cannot monitor their deterioration and does not fully understand why cracking has occurred. They reveal that in June last year, the NSD said it was faced with "significant regulatory issues ... for all operating AGR reactors."

The NSD's most recent safety assessment of Hinkley, completed in April, warns that its continued operation is likely to increase the risk of an accident. While the NSD says it does not believe that there is any immediate radiation danger to the public, it says there is a possibility of serious faults developing that would force the long term or permanent closure of other nuclear plants of the same design.

Hinkley Point power station"While I do not believe that a large release [of radiation] is a likely scenario, some lesser event ... is, I believe, inevitable at some stage if a vigilant precautionary approach is not adopted. There is an an increased likelihood of increased risk should we agree to continued operation," says the inspector.

The documents show the NSD wants more frequent and more probing inspections of the reactor cores at all Britain's AGR plants. These inspections require the reactors to be shut down for weeks.

The premature closing of any nuclear power plant could throw Britain's electricity supplies into chaos.

Closure of Hinkley Point would be likely to lead to closure of at least three other nuclear stations built at the same time, which are also known to be suffering from cracks in their cores.

Cracks in the graphite brick cores of ageing reactors have been observed for some time but until now there has been little public knowledge of the extent of the problem. British Energy warned in 2004 that its Hinkley Point B, Hunterston B, Heysham 2 and Torness plants might not be able to be extend their 30-year lives because of cracked bricks, but it gave few details of the extent of the problem.

British Energy said it had provided new evidence to the NSD. "If the health and safety executive [the government body that oversees the NSD] were not confident in the safety of the reactor cores we would not allow the reactors to operate. The assessment report was part of the ongoing regulatory process... The Nuclear Safety Directorate is monitoring closely British Energy's work on graphite and, where necessary, is influencing the scope and extent of the reactor core inspections that the company carries out.

"British Energy has also been working on methods to monitor the cores whilst the reactors are in service. This will provide added re-assurance on the condition of the cores."

Portions of this article appeared in The Guardian on Wednesday


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