Fears that an earthquake could cause a nuclear accident should not lead to the scaling back of Britain’s nuclear power programme, chief nuclear inspector Mike Weightman said last week.
Questions still remain over impact
But questions remain about the full impact on the nuclear power industry of the recent disaster at Japan’s earthquake-hit Fukushima nuclear power plant.
Weightman was speaking as he published his report Japanese Earthquake and Tsunami: Implications for the UK Nuclear Industry.
The full report is not due until September, leaving questions about the implications for the nuclear new build and decommissioning programme.
The report states that the direct causes of the Fukushima nuclear accident − a magnitude 9 earthquake and associated 14m high tsunami − are far beyond the most extreme events the UK could expect to experience.
Immediate UK safety improvements ‘unecessary’
In this respect the report concludes that there is no reason for curtailing the operation of nuclear power plants or other nuclear facilities in the UK. The report adds that immediate safety improvements to operating nuclear reactors in the UK are unnecessary.
Past ICE President Mark Whitby, now director of consultant Davies Maguire & Whitby, welcomed the report but said there were still safety concerns. “Overall my concern is that we have hugely complicated systems that rely on man management which at its best is brilliant but has a tendency towards complacency,” he said.
A key area exposed by the Fukushima disaster was the lack of water storage on site.
“If they do not act [upon my recommendations] then I can take very robust actions. Industry takes responsibility for its operation but we have an iron fist inside a velvet glove.”
Chief nuclear inspector Mike Weightman
Workers at the plant had to spray huge amounts of water into the overheating reactor to cool it. While successful, it produced huge amounts of contaminated water with no place for safe storage.
“[Lack of water storage has] clearly crossed our minds, but we need to know more about what happened,” said Weightman.
All but one of the UK’s existing nuclear plants rely on gas cooling. However, the new generation of plants are to be cooled by water.
Site layout could be the area most affected by any recommendations from the full report. Location of back-up power generators and high volumes of nuclear fuel close to the reactor made the situation at Fukushima worse.
Weightman added the nuclear industry must take a lead on his recommendations but played down any prospect of them not being implemented.
“If they do not act [upon my recommendations] then I can take very robust actions. Industry takes responsibility for its operation but we [the Office of Nuclear Regulation] have an iron fist inside a velvet glove.”
Weightman is leading the International Atomic Energy Association on a fact finding mission to Japan next month.