The Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) is disappointed with the decision of the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to permit resumption of electricity generation at Reactor 4 in the EDF-owned Hunterston site in North Ayrshire. NFLA believes the age, the amount of keyway root cracks in both Reactors 3 and 4, and the precautionary principle should have been considered in the reactors not being reopened for generation.
Both Reactors 3 and 4 at the Hunterston site have been suspended from electricity generation for a considerable time (March 2018 for Reactor 3 and October 2018 for reactor 4) due to concerns over the level of keyway root cracks and other critical safety matters. The reactors are over 40 years old and at present Reactor 4 has an estimated 209 cracks and Reactor 3 an estimated 377 cracks. As part of this assessment, the ONR has accepted EDF’s safety case to increase the total amount of permitted keyway root of cracks to a maximum of 700, as it argues that these cracks are currently not directly affecting the safety critical issues of safely closing down the reactor or allowing gas coolant to flow through the reactor.
The ONR has allowed Reactor 4 to reopen for a period of around 4 months. It will consider EDF safety cases for the possible reopening of Reactor 3 and the ongoing operation of Reactor 4 beyond this four month period in conjunction later this year. There is considerable work to be done by both EDF before the ONR accepts what will have to be even more detailed and robust safety cases. The ONR has placed on its website a 29 page summary document of its decision over Reactor 4, and will place much further detail over the next 7 days. NFLA will carefully consider these documents as they are published. (1)
In its statement ONR comments: “ONR is satisfied that reactor four is safe to operate for the next period and can be safely shut down in all foreseeable circumstances, including that of a significant seismic event. The core would be able to fulfil its fundamental safety requirements.”
NFLA has raised concerns for some time on this nuclear safety matter, publishing an analysis of the keyway root issue in November 2018 (2) and raising these concerns in the Scottish Parliament in a special meeting chaired by Ross Greer MSP in January 2019.
NFLA has welcomed the openness of discussing these issues with the ONR, and both the NFLA Secretary and independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment, Dr Ian Fairlie, have met the Deputy Chief UK Nuclear Inspector and the Safety Inspector leading on the Hunterston B site twice in meetings in January and July 2019. It is though disappointed with the conclusion that it is appropriate to allow a time-limited resumption of Reactor 4, which it disagrees with.
As Dr Fairlie comments:
“The reactors at Hunterston are among the oldest in Europe and are well past their sell-by dates. It is a pity that reactor four has been granted this four month lease of life to see if any more cracks appear. The precautionary principle should have been applied here especially as Scotland does not need the electricity from these reactors.” (3)
NFLA agrees with this comment, particularly as the ONR accept in their published licensed instrument that the longer term condition of both reactors remains ‘uncertain’. It believes the safest option would be to close the reactors rather than taking the risks given such an ‘uncertain’ future. This matter is also of wider importance as other Advanced Gas Reactors at Hinkley Point B, Heysham, Hartlepool and Torness are also aging and similar safety issues are likely on each of them.
NFLA is aware that the updated evacuation plan and discussion over pre-distribution of potassium iodine tablets is taking place at the Hunterston Site Stakeholder Group meeting in early September. These plans should be discussed thoroughly at the meeting given the decision to restart Reactor 4. NFLA believes it is important that the updated emergency plan is published as soon as possible. Consideration over the free pre-distribution of potassium iodine to the wider population to a distance of at least 50kms from the Hunterston B site should be actively considered and actioned at the local level.
NFLA Scotland Convener Councillor Feargal Dalton said:
“I am disappointed with the ONR’s decision to permit the resumption of Reactor 4 at the Hunterston B reactor site. While welcoming the openness of the ONR in discussing this issue with the NFLA over the past few months, it remains of real concern that reactors of their age and with the levels of keyway root cracking as they have, should resume even time-limited operation. NFLA is particularly concerned that the ONR have accepted from EDF the possibility of up to 700 keyway root cracks on the graphite moderator bricks and still allow their operation. NFLA remains of the view that the age and the level of cracks should see these reactors closed down for practical safety reasons. NFLA will carefully consider the justification documents from the ONR in how it came to this decision, and will actively engage with senior ONR inspectors over the next few months. Just as importantly, NFLA will engage with ONR over the wider end-of-life plans for Hunterston B and other Advanced Gas Reactors as they all come towards the end of their operation.”
NFLA Steering Committee and English Forum Chair Councillor David Blackburn added:
“Hunterston B is the oldest of the Advanced Gas Reactor fleet and it is clear that the increased level of cracks is indicative of its age, leaving to an uncertain future. The question now is how many keyway root cracks are becoming evident at Hinkley Point B, Heysham, Hartlepool and Torness. With the cost of renewable energy technologies ever reducing and their availability increasing surely the best answer is to close these aging nuclear plants in favour of a safer, cleaner, waste free and cheaper low carbon alternative.”
Ends – for more information please contact Sean Morris, NFLA Secretary, on 00 44 (0)161 234 3244.
Notes for editors:
(1) ONR statement on Hunterston B Reactor 4, 19th August 2019
(2) NFLA Policy Briefing 181 on Hunterston B, 14th November 2018
(3) The Ferret investigative journalism service, 19th August 2019