Wednesday 30 March 2011

UK Nuclear Inspectorate: A Scandal Brewing

There are so many big energy stories around just now, I don't know where to begin. Let's start with a really outrageous piece of governmental dereliction & irresponsibility, dating back to Blair and his latter-day conversion to nuclear revivalism.

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Dr Mike Weightman, HM Chief Inspector of NII and Director of Nuclear Directorate, has been ordered by Crapper Huhne to make an urgent review of the implications of Fukushima for the UK’s ambitious plans for 10 new nukes. It isn’t going to be easy.

In 2009, Weightman made a report to the Board of the HSE entitled Briefing on the Nuclear Programme, which has been obtained under an FOI request. Weightman’s paper cited the 2008 Nuclear Regulatory Review: the NII [the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate] is “significantly under-resourced for its predicted future workload, both with and without new nuclear build … Staffing shortage is increasingly severe both due to inability to recruit suitable staff and also age profile of existing staff”.

He went on: “HSE has struggled to recruit sufficient nuclear safety inspectors. … The planned requirement for regulating existing facilities [our emphasis] is 192. This would still leave the NII with one of the lowest ratios of inspectors to plant in the world. [We] need to significantly increase rate of recruitment and sustain it … [our] main office in Bootle not ideal for recruiting and retaining staff.”

He warned that of the 166 inspectors then in post, 40 would be post retirement age ‘within 2-3 years’. He also stated that to carry out the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) – the pre-evaluation of the new reactor types that are planned to provide the 10 new nuclear power plants desired by the government to keep the lights on – the total number of inspectors required would be 232.

How many are there today ? No recent update has been published, but the HSE website says the Inspectorate has ‘some 250 staff’ of which around 60% hold honours degrees. This makes 150 graduate-level inspectors at best which – since the GDA is in full swing - means a shortfall of 80.

Before the new emergency Weightman review was put on the plate of this overworked team, the DECC website declared: “The Office for Nuclear Development is working to ensure that the nuclear regulators continue to have the resources and tools necessary for GDA. The regulators have stated that they expect to complete their GDA assessment in June 2011.” This completion date – which had already slipped by 6 months - must surely now slip again.

Another 2009 HSE document stated: “Although we have said that we could issue a Design Acceptance Confirmation with exclusions or conditions, this does not mean that we are prepared to undermine the robustness of our requirements for safe and secure designs. If, by the end of GDA, we are unable to come to a satisfactory overall conclusion, then we will not issue a Design Acceptance Confirmation”.

What chance that EDF and the other would-be nuclear developers get their approvals in 2011? Even Clegg has spotted that the enterprise is doomed. What are we doing trying to build a large 21st C nuclear industry with an inspectorate that can't even cope with what we've got ?

To be continued ...



Anonymous said...

As an ex-employee of supplier of key component parts to the nuclear industry, its not just the loss of expertise in the NII. The whole supply chain has been dismantled.

Even if there was the will to build them - which there isn't - who's going to supply and maintain the new kit?

Windmills anyone?

rwendland said...

On Fukushima, it rather looks like the Japanese govt will very soon have to face up to the rather delicate job of enlarging the radiation exclusion zone. Without creating panic.

I'd suggest folks take a UK map and draw 30km circles around our proposed nuclear plant sites, and try to imagine how we'd run a similar exclusion zone. We have too high a population density in much of the UK to risk playing with this technology.

So far the world has seen 6 power reactors fail in a spectacular way, or about 1% of those built. That's far too high a failure rate to feel compfortable deploying more.

James Higham said...

And the logical conclusion regarding the government's seriousness about this? As commenter Ivan at my place wrote:

We should have started at least 5 nuclear power plants by now if the lights are to stay on up to the next election.

Nick Drew said...

Anon - thanks for your input, you confirm all our suspicions

Mr W - your 1% statistic is interesting & sobering

but I think it is fair to compare it to, e.g. the failure rate of early powered flight - & I still trust my life regularly to aircraft

surely the designs will get better, smaller, safer, & eventually failsafe. I am mostly interested in the here-&-now implications: which brings us to ...

James: I think your friend Ivan is wrong in detail. The lights will not go out in 2015 because if they do, so will the government - even 3rd world dictators know this

my questions are:
(1) how many of the foredoomed UK nukes & coal plants can actually have their lives extended in the period to 2020 ? I suspect that as regards the coal, it is fewer than people might casually assume

(2) when will Huhne's chaps realise the game is up ? (or rather, when will they do something about it)

Old BE said...

Well it looks like Thatch's scheme to promote global warming to save the nuclear industry has finally fallen apart.

How quickly can the likes of EDF build new coal and gas plants using existing designs at existing sites?

ivan said...

Nick, I may be wrong in detail but not in principal. Unless Huhne and co change their thinking that is where the UK is headed - there are too many power plants scheduled to be taken out of commission at about the same time with little or nothing to replace them.

Who has the answer to your first question? Whoever it is I wish they would speak up. I've been out of the industry, and country, for too long to even begin an estimate.

Nick Drew said...

BE - even big gas plants, pretty quick (= 3 years on 'conventional' timescales: Enron used to do them in 2) at suitable sites: probably more to do with access to gas pipelines than cooling-water, in France's case

coal - away from large pre-existing ports, takes quite a bit longer as they depend on more problematic infrastructure (big footprint, heavy rail traffic): and (because CCS isn't available yet) you'd probably need to disregard emissions targets etc - which of course when push comes to shove, everyone will

Ivan - good to hear from you. We all agree that if they don't act decisively the crunch will come: but the politics of blackouts are so bad, I reckon they will indeed act - belatedly and at growing, unnecessary cost the longer they leave it. I am hoping that the oil price stays high this year, to administer the inevitable kick-up-the-arse as soon as possible

from your industry experience, do you agree with me that when a coal plant (e.g.) has been earmarked for early closure, the operator tends to discontinue discretionary maintenance - which after a while means that the closure-date becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy -?

I am told the 'voice of gently skeptical reason' in the government on all this, is (Lord) David Howell, Osborne's father-in-law. This makes me nervous because he is an oaf ... one of the worst energy ministers we've ever had, ask Michael Portillo who was his SpAd!

rwendland said...

ivan EDF/British Energy have announced intentions to life-extend most of thier UK nuclear plants, by probably 5 or 10 years. So many plants going out of commission at once is not a likely scenario.

It was always so, but the nuclear PR peeps were able to convince almost everyone that British Energy's "Accounting Closure Date" was a firm closure date, wheras it was always just a life-extension review point. (BE always planned a life-extension review to report & decide 3 years before "Accounting Closure Date".)

If all EDF's UK nucs were to last 40 years from first grid connection, the closure dates would be:

Hinkley Point B 2016
Hunterston B 2016
Dungeness B 2023
Hartlepool 2023
Heysham 1 2023
Heysham 2 2028
Torness 2028
Sizewell B 2035

As you can see, no imminent cliff to coincide with tighter coal regulation in 2015. Almost certainly there would be some variation in the actual closure of the 2023 three above, because they are not identical designs.

Electro-Kevin said...

Rwendland - respect to your views but let's not forget that the alternative will result in a lot of death and illness (through poverty) too.

In fact that's pretty much a certainty whereas your, admittedly sobering, prospect isn't.

ivan said...

Nick, in most cases where closure is considered the first thing to go is what is termed 'unnecessary maintenance' and staff are reduced. The idea is that as long as the main plant keeps on working up to retirement time then all is well. This, of course, leads to the plant having to be shut down on time, or a rather large amount of money needs to be spent to keep it going.

Any decision not to end life a plant needs to be taken at least 5 years before the end life date just to make sure the plant will function in all respects.

In most cases plant that has had proper maintenance can have its life extended by up to 20 years and if rolling replacement is undertaken then there is no need for closure.

Nick Drew said...

... or a rather large amount of money needs to be spent

ivan thanks you have more-or-less confirmed my view