Minister and Chief Nuclear Regulator respond to NFLA concerns over Hinkley safety issues, but no shutdown promised

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The Nuclear Free Local Authorities network (NFLA) is disappointed, but not unsurprised, to hear from both the Minister and the Head of the Office of Nuclear Regulation that whilst investigations continue into the cause of the accident at the Taishan-1 reactor in China, there will be no halt to construction work at the new Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor.

Last month, the Chair of the NFLA Steering Committee, Councillor David Blackburn, wrote to Minister Greg Hands and Chief Executive Mark Foy outlining his concerns that a radioactive gas leak at the Taishan 1 reactor in China may be the result of a potentially fatal design flaw which may be common to the identical EPRs (short for European Pressurised or Evolutionary Power Reactors) reactors planned for Hinkley Point C in Somerset and at Sizewell C in Suffolk.

In June 2021, nuclear operator, Framatome, a subsidiary of French-state owned power utility, EDF, reported a leak of radioactive gas at the Taishan 1 plant. In November 2021, the French Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (Criirad) reported that a design flaw causes early wear in the reactor and that it is common to all EPRs, raising ‘serious questions in terms of nuclear safety and radiation protection, both for plant workers and for residents.’ The reactor has been shut down to enable an investigation to take place.

In his letters to the Minister and the Head of the ONR, Councillor Blackburn called for an indefinite halt to construction work at Hinkley until the investigation was completed and an assessment made as to whether the EPRs are fatally flawed and should be abandoned.

The letter sent by the NFLA Steering Committee Chair Cllr David Blackburn to Minister Greg Hands and the Head of the Office of Nuclear Regulation Mr Mark Foy, on 13 December read:

‘The Rt Hon Greg Hands MP,
Minister of State for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change
By email to enquiries@beis.gov.uk

Mr Mark Foy,
Chief Executive, Office of Nuclear Regulation
By email to mark.foy@onr.gov.uk

Dear Minister and Mr Foy,

I am writing to you as Chair of the Nuclear Free Local Authorities network to outline the serious safety concerns of our members relating to the reactor design of the proposed Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C EPR (European Pressurised or Evolutionary Power Reactors) nuclear power plants.

I am sure that you and your officials are well aware of the serious incident which has caused the temporary shutdown of the Taishan 1 nuclear power plant in China. In June 2021, nuclear operator, Framatome, a subsidiary of French-state owned power utility, EDF, reported an ‘imminent radiological threat’ to the US Department of Energy, after Chinese safety authorities were accused of seeking to thwart attempts to shut down the reactor, after a leak of radioactive gas, by the expedient of raising permissive radiation limits around the plant.

As I understand it, the exact cause of the leak remains unclear, but a rupture of the uranium rods within the reactor core due to abnormal wear and tear was suspected. The company’s appeal to the US regulatory authorities was apparently for patented specialist equipment to use in the reactor pressure to investigate whether the zirconium cladding tubes shielding the uranium fuel rods have become unusually corroded.

You will be aware that the French Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (Criirad) has just reported its concerns to the French nuclear regulator, ‘Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire’, ASN, that a fault with the design of the vessel causes early wear in the reactor; that this inherent design flaw is common to all EPRs, and that the accident at Taishan ‘raises serious questions in terms of nuclear safety and radiation protection, both for plant workers and for residents.’

The report can be found at CRIIRAD – ‘Incident on the Taishan 1 EPR: CRIIRAD calls on ASN and calls for the greatest transparency’ (In French), dated 28 November 2021

http://www.criirad.org/Surete-nucleaire/Communique_de_presse_CRIIRAD_du_28_novembre_2021-Taishan_1.pdf

Although French worries revolve around the future safety of the Flammaville 3 EPR, the NFLA is also gravely concerned that the latest news puts into question the future safety of EPRs planned for the UK. An EPR to the same design is currently under construction at Hinkley Point C in Somerset and there is a further proposed plant at Sizewell, Suffolk.

Although the views of the UK Government and the NFLA are completely at odds when it comes to the advisability of commissioning new nuclear power plants, I am confident our views will not be at variance over the criticality of ensuring that any plant that does operate does so with safety as its absolute priority.

As we have seen at Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and now Taishan, any nuclear power project represents, by its nature, the potential source of a future accident. I hope that we shall all agree that why it is so important that the risks inherent to nuclear power operations are robustly managed within the limits of our knowledge, resources and technology? However, safety management will always be compromised if operators are hampered by an inherently dangerous design.

In the view of the NFLA, it would be simply foolhardy to continue further with construction work at Hinkley Point C at this time. Surely, it is incumbent upon the UK Government, the ONR, and EDF, the operator, to call an indefinite halt to developments at Hinkley (and Sizewell) whilst a thorough review of the Taishan accident is conducted to ascertain whether the EPR design contains a common fatal design flaw, and, if it does, to establish whether there is any technological solution that can be implemented, that is feasible and affordable, to remediate it before the Hinkley Point C plant is built and comes on line?

If there is no feasible and affordable solution, then the current reactor design should be abandoned; any less must surely at some point recklessly jeopardise public safety.

Minister, Mr Foy, thank you for your consideration of this letter. My NFLA Councillor colleagues and I will look forward to your reply.

Yours sincerely,

Councillor David Blackburn,

Chair, Nuclear Free Local Authorities’

 

The response, dated 13 January 2022, received from Mr Mark Foy, Chief Executive and Chief Nuclear Inspector at ONR, reads:

The response, dated 14 January 2022, received from the Minister of State Greg Hands reads:

For more information, please contact Richard Outram, NFLA Secretary, at (Email) richard.outram@manchester.gov.uk, (Mobile) 07583097793.

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