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Judging the Safety of Hunterston B Nuclear Power Station

It is extraordinary that Reactor 3 of Hunterston B nuclear power station is being declared as ‘safe’ enough to restart. It has been closed since March 2018 because of the fears raised by an estimated 377 cracks in its graphite core. It’s twin, Reactor 4, is now also closed for inspection to monitor cracking, last estimated as below the level of Reactor 3. Given that 3 was known to be worse, it is likely that it too will be allowed to restart. Forget the idea that the plant will close ‘early’ in 2022, both are on borrowed time - 14 years beyond their intended life of 30 years at construction. Scottish CND, Friends of the Earth and UN House Scotland has already called for their immediate closure.

 How is Safety Judged?

 

Safety is judged by the Office of Nuclear Regulation who claim that safety is their sole priority. They have given permission for the restart of Reactor 3 following consideration of the case submitted by the plant’s owner and operator EDF, a subsidiary of Électricité de France. Calculations of safety are based on complex models and multiple estimates of risk. The history of accidents within the industry demonstrates that such calculations cannot anticipate all possible chains of events. In the case of Hunterston, the focus of immediate concern is that cracking reduces the stability of the core should there be an earth tremor and that debris from the cracks falling into the channels used by the fuel rods could impede the cooling of the reactor or stop the possibility of shutting it down safely. EDF have persuaded ONR that it will be safe during an earth tremor and therefore it should be allowed to run for another six months.

 

The possibility of unanticipated chains of events is illustrated by the account of what seems to have been a near catastrophic accident at Hunterston in 1998. During the Christmas holidays of that year, storm spray from the Firth of Clyde shorted out all power lines at Hunterston B, the emergency backup generators also all failed and the emergency core cooling system was unable to be operated– an extremely serious situation because the reactors’ massive decay heat could not be removed. The plant was down to a skeleton staff because of the holidays and this contributed to delay in restoring the cooling system. It took an agonising four hours before the cooling system was well and major harm avoided. The incident illustrates how quickly things can spiral out of control. Freak weather events are now more common and generate flooding and landslides which can close roads. One more factor adding to the delay would have resulted in a very different outcome

 

EDF have massive financial interests in persuading ONR that Hunterston’s reactors are ‘safe’ -not only because of the revenue from Hunterston but because of the implications for all the UK’s power stations which they now own. All of them have this type of graphic core and will start to crack as they age. Torness is expected to start cracking in 2022. The financially ailing EDF needs to resist their shutdown for as long as possible.

 

ONR is largely staffed by people who have come from the nuclear industry and, therefore, are inevitably in tune with interests of that industry. Also as a government funded agency, there is some risk of being susceptible to pressure from UK government, although this could never be acknowledged. Part of the UK government’s unwavering commitment to nuclear power stems from their commitment to nuclear weapons. The capacity to design and build nuclear weapons is supported by the training, knowledge, and practical know how of the wider nuclear industry.

 

Remember that the majority of the Scottish population live in the Central Belt to the west of Hunterston and would be likely to be under the plume of radiation should there be a significant accident. The models used to judge risk do not typically factor in the numbers of people downwind and the human scale of the potential catastrophe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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