Research commissioned by The Times newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch, alleges that the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) found that the rate of faults recorded at power plants and military bases has doubled since 2010 to more than one a day.
The ONR was set up as an arm of the Health and Safety Executive shortly after the Fukushima disaster (below) in 2011.
A serious problem is posed by its obligation under Treasury rules to give the sector room for financial growth and by the fact that it draws 94% of its budget from the companies it was set up to regulate.
Brief accounts of these faults, recorded in the three years up to March 2015, found that between 2012 and 2015 the ONR gave 973 incidents an International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) score of zero or left them unrated, meaning they were judged to have been of “no nuclear safety significance”. Among them were:
- Four cases where tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, was found at elevated levels in groundwater around the Dungeness B reactor in Kent.
- At least 70 safety incidents on the UK’s main nuclear warhead base at Aldermaston, Berkshire, including the contamination of several workers and a power cut across the site.
- An accident where a vehicle carrying nuclear material on the M1 hit a lorry
- Another where a transport lorry flipped over, damaging two containers holding radioactive chemicals.
- Uranium “sludge” and an unstable form of caesium left in bin bags at Springfields, a former power plant, and Amersham nuclear materials factory.
- A torpedo inadvertently fired by a Navy warship at the nuclear submarine dock in Plymouth
- At least a dozen leaks of radioactive substance
- More than 30 fires at power stations, including an event where a control panel at the Sellafield site was burnt out.
- Three road accidents involving vehicles carrying radioactive material were among the events dismissed as posing no danger.
- Radiation alarms at Britain’s ports and airports set off on 15 separate occasions by packages that were not supposed to contain any radioactive material, including four at Heathrow.
- A contractor at Harwell swallowed plutonium
- A worker at the Devonport nuclear submarine base in Plymouth breathed in an unstable isotope of cobalt
- and 13 others at various sites had worryingly high radiation counts found in urine.
Sellafield, a fuel reprocessing centre and former reactor in Cumbria, recorded 167 problems, by far the largest number. These included several power cuts, ground contaminations, unplanned shutdowns and a complete loss of cooling water around the reactor.
Richard Savage, who took over as the chief nuclear inspector nine months ago, recently paid tribute to the ONR’s “countless regulatory achievements” and called for a more “collaborative” relationship with the private sector.
The ONR said that its safety ratings were strictly in line with international guidelines and that there was no conflict of interest in its role. In a speech last month Baroness Neville-Rolfe, the energy minister, praised the “good progress” the watchdog had made on safety regulation.
Many will be concerned to hear that the government is said to be moving to abandon the INES scores for a system of green, amber and red warnings and is planning to give the nuclear industry an even greater say in how it is regulated next March.
As Green MP Caroline Lucas comments: “It is even more absurd that they are (encouraging nuclear power) at the same time as reducing support for cheaper, safer and more reliable alternatives. Instead of investing in this eye-wateringly expensive white-elephant, the government should be doing all it can to support offshore wind, energy efficiency and innovative new technologies, such as energy storage”.
Many will be asking how much clean, safe, renewable energy could be generated, given the redirection of the enormous cost of the proposed Hinkley Point reactor, estimates varying between £18bn & £37bn, with a government/taxpayer guaranteed price of £92.50 a unit for 35 years?