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Weightman Warns Nuclear Industry To Do More Research

Dead cattle in barn on ranch at Namie, radiation exclusion zone, Fukushima Prefecture: photo by Tachyon (via Rocket News 24, 11 April 2011

The post-Fukushima Weightman report into nuclear safety has been welcomed by the Government and industry as being favourable, but contains warnings to the industry.

Chris Huhne has interpreted the report on the UK’s nuclear power stations and facilities as giving the green light to nuclear newbuild, but critics have claimed it is “rushed”.

The report, by Dr. Mike Weightman, the chief nuclear inspector at the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), “sees no reason to curtail the operation of power plants or other nuclear facilities in the UK” in the wake of the powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami which crippled the Japanese plants in March, according to Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, who laid it before Parliament yesterday.

Huhne told the Commons that Weightman “believes the industry has reacted responsibly and appropriately, displaying strong leadership for safety and safety culture”.

But the report makes a number of recommendations, including reviews of emergency procedures, of techniques for estimating radioactive source terms, and of the adequacy of the system of planning controls for commercial and residential developments off the nuclear licensed site, which will add to delays and costs for any developers.

It also charges the nuclear industry and the ONR to have “more open, transparent and trusted communications, and relationships, with the public”.

Obfuscation was a widespread criticism of the industry in Japan and worldwide, both before and after the tsunami.

Although the Weightman report does say “there is no need to change the present siting strategies” for new nuclear power stations in the UK, it adds that the nuclear industry should “review the dependency of nuclear safety on off‐site infrastructure in extreme conditions” and look at flooding, power-supply and storage risks.

Caroline Flint, speaking for the first time in her new role replacing Meg Hillier as Labour’s Shadow Energy Secretary, gave full support to the report, adding, “Now the Tory-led Government needs to give investors the support and confidence they need to deliver the construction of new capacity in the nuclear industry”.

Sellafield criticism

Sellafield is singled out for criticism by Dr. Weightman’s report, saying that Sellafield Ltd, the company which runs the site, Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority which owns Sellafield, and the British Government “all regard urgent progress with the legacy ponds and silos remediation and retrievals programme as a national priority”.

“This priority is reinforced by the example of the Fukushima accident, where the vulnerabilities of an older plant were not sufficiently recognised and addressed,” says Dr. Weightman.

“The main focus for the site must remain the retrieval of the radioactive inventory from these facilities and the processing of the material into safer waste forms,” he reports. “In the meantime, contingency measures are put in place.”

The report says the storage ponds for nuclear waste at Sellafield, some of which are up to 50 years old, “can never be brought up to modern standards”.

The heat-generating capacity of the radioactive material stored in the ponds is lower than that of fuel in an operating nuclear power plant, so accident scenarios generally develop over longer timescales than those modelled for nuclear power plants.

Sellafield’s management is reviewing the plant’s cooling, ventilation, inerting and containment systems and “the availability and reliability of these systems under accident conditions”, but the work has “yet to be completed”.

Flooding, venting and power supplies
The report also cautions about the danger of flooding.

It warns nuclear plant managers and developers (reiterating the point made in June in the Government’s Response to Consultation on the Revised Draft National Policy Statements for Energy Infrastructure) that they must examine “the effects of the credible maximum scenario in the most recent projections of marine and coastal flooding”, and “demonstrate that in principle adaptation to such a scenario would be possible”.

The nuclear industry must “initiate a review of flooding studies, including from tsunamis, in light of the Japanese experience, to confirm the design basis and margins for flooding at UK nuclear sites”.

It should also look at the ventilation and venting routes of radioactive gas and liquids for nuclear facilities.

The report admits that detailed information is not available on the performance of concrete, other structures and equipment, in earthquakes (Recommendation IR‐15).

Nor is there sufficient evidence about the “robustness and potential unavailability of off–site electrical supplies under severe hazard conditions” (Recommendation IR‐17).

Rushed report

Back in the Commons, it was left to Caroline Lucas of the Green Party to be one of the few MPs expressing scepticism, calling the report “rushed out”, because of the lack of evidence backing the overall claim.

She complained that by being released in the form of a Written Statement it offered “little chance for Parliamentary scrutiny”.

She added “It will do little to reassure the British public that the nuclear industry can be trusted to power our energy future”.

Greenpeace provided evidence for this view by pointing out that its release is “significantly ahead of the major international comparable reviews into the implications of Fukushima”, which are:

  • 31 December: ONR’s final report on EU stress tests.
  • April 2012: Independent peer review of the national reports on the EU stress tests
  • March 2012: UN action plan on nuclear safety
  • August 2012: The Convention on Nuclear Safety meeting to consider the lessons of Fukushima.

Louise Hutchins, Greenpeace Senior Energy Campaigner said: “It’s designed with one objective – to give the green light to a new generation of nuclear power stations, irrespective of the safety, environmental or rising financial costs of those nuclear stations. This is government complacency.”

Labour’s Paul Flynn, a long-time critic of nuclear power, agreed: “The country needs consideration of the full implications, principally the cost that is making nuclear power unaffordable and uninsurable throughout the planet.

“We are not getting that and we should ask the Government to do their full job and present us with a report that is comprehensive and full.”

Under questioning, Mr. Huhne admitted that an email had been sent immediately after the Fukushima disaster from an official in the Business Department warning that it must not derail the UK’s expansion of nuclear power and appealing to the industry to help the Government present the pro-nuclear case.

In answer to criticism that Dr Weightman could have looked at the costs of nuclear newbuild, Mr. Huhne said the Dr. Weightman “quite rightly, as the chief nuclear inspector charged with safety, takes the view that safety comes first regardless of the issues of costs”.

Chris Huhne is progressing with plans to establish the ONR as a statutory body. Dr Weightman is to report within a year on the progress industry is making to improve standards, including plant layout, flood defences and other issues.

David Thorpe's picture

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Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on Oct 12, 2011 8:10 pm GMT

Translation,”a rushed report” means a report that did not meet the Greenpeace standard for anti-nuclear media.  I do not think highly of Greenpeace.

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Oct 12, 2011 10:13 pm GMT

Charles

There is a catalogue of concerns which Weightman lists which indicate that much more work is to be done before any new build nuclear can gain planning permission, and which existing plants must also address.

This is regardless of what Greenpeace says.

The headlines which the report garnered in the mainstream press belie the small print.

Weightman told his political masters what they wanted to hear in the headlines but then alerted them that there is plenty of work to be done – which the organisation he heads up, the ONR, will be given more public and private money to do.

Any other way of telling the message would not have got this result for him. Job done!

David

Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on Oct 13, 2011 2:07 am GMT

The government won’t let the farmers return because of the hazard level in that area, so it is relevant.

Charles Barton's picture
Charles Barton on Oct 13, 2011 12:31 pm GMT

David, I would be the last person to deny the importance of nuclear safety, or the need to do nuclear safety research.  But if the Fukushima reactor events demonstrated anything, is was rgar even old reactor designs are remarkably safe by indistrial standards.  The Fukushima reactors themselves survived an earthquake that was latger than their designed maximum quake and syrvived a 15 meter tsunami.  Earthquake caused damage to the Japanese electrical infrastructure, a tsunami caused damage to secondary back up generators were responsible forthe reactor safety failures.  Reactors are designed to mitigate deaths and injuries in the event of catistrophic failures, and infact there were no deaths reported as a direct consequence of the Fukushima accident.  Given that a near by dam failed completely as a result if the earthquake and killed as many as 12 people, and the eqrthquake-tsunamy killed over 20,000 people, the Fukushima reactor events proved that nuclear safety is remarkably successful.  The Fukushima incidents demonstrate that more attenion needs to be paid to site related safety issues, and that backup safety systems need to be passive and intrensic.  Recent nuclear safety developments have produced reactor designs that would have continued to successfully function in Fukushima like circumstances.  Were Greenpeace truely interested in Nuclear safety, it would support the adoption of the safest possible nuclear safety design.  But Greenpeace in not in the slighest interested in nuclear safety.  No report on nuclear safety will be acceptable to Greenpeace if it does not find nuclear safety issues to pose unacceptable risks.  Greenpeace does not support nuclear safety researc, nor does it support the adoption of safety improvements.  Greenpeace’s sole interest is the obstruction of all nuclear developments and the shutting down of every nuclear plant in the world, no matter how safe a plant may be.

Greenpeace is irrationally hostile to nuclear power, hostile to the point of paranoia.  Greenpeace offers views on nuclear safety that are simply not credible.  

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Oct 14, 2011 1:20 am GMT

If so a label should have said so. The Image was clearly meant to give a different impression.

Seriously, “Above: Dead cattle in barn on ranch at Namie, radiation exclusion zone, Fukushima Prefecture”.

Isn’t this the kind of shady reporting that news media are constantly being crticized for?

 

//

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Oct 14, 2011 10:06 am GMT

The 38 recommendations made by Weightman may be minor compared to the situation in Fukushima which prompted his survey and which is the justification for the picture used (and which references the Sellafield – then Windscale – disaster of the ’50s in which contaminated milk had to be thrown away).

But they are not minor in an absolute sense. If they were, why would the UK’s Energy Secretary Chris Huhne yesterday have called the UK nuclear policy “a runner to be the most expensive failure of post-war British policy-making”?

http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/news/ch_sp_royal/ch_sp_royal.aspx

It is this legacy which Weightman and others are having to deal with.

The cost of dealing with this existing situation – mostly waste management – is huge – almost half of DECC’s budget, and about £1000 per UK individual.

It is good that this is happening. The safety record of UK nuclear reactors is reasonable.

But it means that there are further delays and costs associated with new build. Not srprising that companies are pulling out. My prediction is that, if we’re lucky, only one new build will happen. It will go over budget, ovr schedule, do nothing to help us meet 2020 carbon reduction targets.

Too little, too late, too expensive, too risky, too compromising for future generations.

Nothing irrational about that.

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Oct 16, 2011 1:59 pm GMT

Amelia – it is not nuclear technology’s fault that the elected officials in the Japanese government will not even read the detailed reports on the lack of hazard at the levels measured in the evacuation zone that were produced by its own scientists.

I highly recommend the work of Dr. Sohei Kondo, who put together several of his published papers in a 1993 book titled “Health Effects of Low Level Radiation.”

The dangers (or lack thereof) at those low dose rates have not changed in the nearly 20 years since that book was published. The oil and gas industry and their paid friends in the media have done a great job at obscuring the information provided, however.

The evacuations were politically motivated because people demanded that the government “do something”. A better response would have been to help people understand that there is no elevated risk compared to the normal risk of just living on the planet.

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