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Learning from Fukushima

While the Weightman review into the nuclear power industry following the Fukushima disaster signals good news for the industry, the job to digest and act on the recommendations is a challenge.

The final conclusions of the official inquiry into lessons learned from Japan’s Fukushima disaster, were published last week.

The Fukushima nuclear plant suffered a partial meltdown after it was engulfed by an earthquake induced tsunami in March (NCE 17 March).

They are contained in chief nuclear inspector Mike Weightman’s final report Japanese earthquake and tsunami: Implications for the UK nuclear industry, commissioned by energy secretary Chris Huhne following the disaster in March.

Report Conclusions

The conclusions are as follows:

There is no reason to curtail the operation of UK nuclear sites, although operators should keep following the founding principle of continuous improvement.

There are no fundamental weaknesses in the UK nuclear licensing regime or the safety assessment principles that underpin it, and the intention to create the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) in statute will boost confidence in the UK regulatory regime

There is no reason to revise the strategic advice given by the regulators on which the Nuclear National Policy Statement was based, or any need to change present siting strategies for new nuclear power stations in the UK.

The UK practice of periodic safety reviews of licensed sites is a robust means of ensuring continuous improvement in line with advances in technology and standards;

Events at Fukushima reinforce the need to continue to pursue nuclear decommissioning of former nuclear sites with utmost vigour and determination

The regulator is satisfied with the responses and plans initiated by government and nuclear industry in response to the interim report.

Implications for industry

So what does the report mean for the nuclear industry and how will it be affected?

To its supporters it’s a timely reminder to ensure lessons can be learnt from one the biggest nuclear disasters in a generation.

However, to its critics the report is a “rushed” judgement on the safety of nuclear to ensure the go-ahead for the upcoming new nuclear build programme.

“It’s quite a complicated report,” says independent nuclear expert Tony Roulstone.

“It has conclusions from the final report and conclusions from the interim report - it’s quite confusing.”

The Weightman report consists of six final report conclusions along with 11 conclusions from the interim report that were revealed in May (NCE 26 May).

Probably the most important is the conclusion that the events at Fukushima should not curtail the UK’s upcoming new build programme.

However, Weightman has also made 38 recommendations across the new build and existing nuclear sector, looking at fl ooding, off grid power supply and storage.

Roulstone says the report shows that UK nuclear regulator the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR), which Weightman reports into, wants to focus on a more serious and periodic safety review, with more rigorous checks at the UK’s older reactors.

Sellafield clean-up

It also strongly emphasises Sellafield’s need to clean up its nuclear waste legacy, he says.

“The fuel ponds at Sellafield were built over 50 years ago to a design we would not accept today,” says his report.

With the ONR calling for the decommissioning at Sellafield’s waste fuel legacy to accelerate, there is an increasing likelihood that more money will have to be spent on it by the government.

Only last week energy secretary Chris Huhne estimated the clean up bill at Sellafield to be £53.7bn, and said he could not be confident that this would not rise again in the future.

With half of the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s (Decc’s) budget spent on decommissioning - rising to two thirds next year - the impact of the Weightman report may be to divert government spending away from renewables and towards cleaning up the nuclear legacy.

However, Roulstone points out that recent spend has been on nuclear waste storage rather than decommissioning. the Department for Energy and Climate Change is expected to imminently make a decision on the long-term plan for Sellafi eld’s waste. This could be in the form of a geological disposal facility.

New nuclear

But back on the new build programme, the Weightman report has a significant impact on the ONR’s generic design assessment (GDA) for new nuclear reactors.

Roulstone says that there are high costs to putting designs through the process, referring to nuclear reactor vendor Areva spending upwards of £100M on the process. Only last week part owner of Horizon, energy giant RWE said it was spending almost £1M a week on developing the scheme at Wylfa. Nuclear reactor manufacturers Westinghouse and Areva have been putting their reactor designs through the GDA since 2007, to ultimately enable them to gain a licence to construct new plants in the UK.

Originally the GDA was due to finish last year but post-Fukushima this was put back until the end of this year.

In addition, the firms will now have to respond to Weightman’s recommendations mostly regarding the safety of their designs in the next year.

Weightman has given existing and new nuclear firms a year to act on the recommendations. The industry challenge has clearly been set, it just remains to be seen how it will respond and how long the nuclear industry takes to recover from Fukushima.

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