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UK nuclear regulation needs major review

UK nuclear policy must be overhauled to create accountability, improve risk assessment and provide better advice to government, industry experts told NCE this week.

Regulation “not independent enough”

They said regulation and advisory bodies are not independent enough and unacceptable risks are disregarded.
Independent nuclear consultant John Large said a “root and branch” review of nuclear regulation is needed, together with a new, independent regulatory body to look at the “deeper” issues surrounding nuclear power as opposed to the “nuts and bolts” concerns of the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR).

Large − who was asked but declined a role in the recent Weightman nuclear review − said that the ONR is not accountable enough and its independence is undermined by the frequent movement of staff from it to industry and vice versa (NCE 26 May).

University of Manchester professorial fellow and nuclear technology specialist Barry Marsden agreed that a new body was needed but rather because the government currently has no source for truly unbiased advice.

No “truly independent” advice

The UK Atomic Energy Authority filled this role until its privatisation in the 1990s, he said, but no body now exists that can give truly independent advice on nuclear issues. The US National Laboratories are a good example of what is needed, Marsden said.

Large advocates a major redefinition of whether the risk analysis on nuclear projects is publicly acceptable. Probabilistic risk analysis means incidents considered to be extremely unlikely can be dismissed, he said, a practice which Fukushima has shown to be flawed.

“Someone says, ‘that’s so incredible, you don’t have to plan for it’. The problem becomes in whether your analysis is reliable,” he said.

“Someone says, ‘that’s so incredible, you don’t have to plan for it’. The problem becomes in whether your analysis is reliable”

University of Manchester professorial fellow and nuclear technology specialist Barry Marsden

For example, the likelihood and severity of aircraft crashes at nuclear sites is often considered too remote a risk to design for.

This issue is at the fore of an ongoing inquiry into the planned expansion of Lydd Airport in Kent, which is close to Dungeness nuclear power plant.

But University of Birmingham senior lecturer Paul Norman questioned whether the UK can afford a major policy overhaul in the face of the government’s target to halve carbon emissions by 2025, confirmed last month (NCE 19 May). New nuclear will be central to achieving the targets, and time is crucial if plants are to be online by 2025, Norman said.

“It’s slipped back and back again, and you get to a point where you’ve got to take some action,” he said. “We do just need to get on with new build.”

Norman said he believes that although nuclear disasters are a threat, the risks of climate change are much more serious, widespread and likely to occur. New nuclear designs − including sophisticated safety features such as passive cooling systems − are suffering from the bad publicity generated by older, less safe − reactors such as the ones at ­Fukushima, he said.

NCE readers take postive approach to nuclear

NCE readers were equally positive about the pursuit of new nuclear this week. In an online poll 81% said the UK should not follow Germany’s lead by shutting down nuclear power plants. Other knock on effects from Fukushima are being felt across Europe. But the repercussions could also be felt in other ways in the UK.

Germany’s decision to shun nuclear could lead Horizon Nuclear Power − a joint venture between German utilities Eon and RWE which is developing a new nuclear power plant at Wylfa − to pull out of UK nuclear new build, Large said. The firms are subjected to German nuclear taxes and the share prices of both utilities have dropped since the German government’s decision last week.

“No pull-out” from UK

However, a Horizon spokesman refuted the possibility of pulling out of the UK. “We’re still working and developing our plans, and we’re in the process of selecting our technology,” he said. Horizon plans to select Areva’s European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) or Westinghouse’s AP1000 reactor, a decision delayed until the conclusion of the Weightman report in September this year.

“We don’t have enough domestic plants to sustain the activity at Sellafield”

Horizon spokesman

The Japan disaster and Germany’s decision could also have a knock-on effect on UK nuclear fuel re-processing.
Sellafield’s Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (Thorp) reprocesses spent fuel from Germany and Japan, alongside other European countries. The potential combined loss of major markets in Germany and Japan could leave the Thorp facility unable to survive, said Large.

“We don’t have enough domestic plants to sustain the activity at Sellafield,” he said. Thorp owner the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) said the plant is dependent on the export market.

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