The Nuclear Free Local Authorities network (NFLA) has written to the Minister of State for Energy and the Head of the Office of Nuclear Regulation calling for an indefinite halt to construction work at the new Hinkley Point C nuclear plant whilst the impact of the Taishan-1 nuclear accident in China is investigated.
The Chair of the NFLA Steering Committee, Councillor David Blackburn, has written to Minister Greg Hands and Chief Executive Mark Foy outlining concerns that a radioactive gas leak at the Taishan 1 reactor in China has uncovered a potentially fatal design flaw which could have a serious impact on the UK Government’s plans to permit identical reactors to operate at Hinkley Point C in Somerset and at Sizewell C in Suffolk.
The Hinkley Point and Sizewell projects would both, like Taishan-1. be equipped with EPRs (short for European Pressurised or Evolutionary Power Reactors). EPR projects have a history of safety concerns, massive delays and huge cost overruns. Although the Hinkley Point C is planned to come on line in 2026, plants at Olkiluoto 3 in Finland and Flammaville 3 in France are now 13 and 11 years behind schedule respectively. Sizewell is still awaiting final government authorisation.
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 nuclear power plant in China. A rupture of the uranium rods within the reactor core as a result of abnormal wear and tear was suspected, and the reactor was subsequently shut down to enable an investigation to take place.
At the end of November, the French Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity (Criirad) reported that a problem 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 Taishan accident ‘raises serious questions in terms of nuclear safety and radiation protection, both for plant workers and for residents.’ (1)
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, and the organisation has now written to the Minister and Head of the ONR seeking government action in response to the Taishan accident (2).
The Chair of the NFLA Steering Committee and NFLA English Forum, Councillor David Blackburn, said:
“The NFLA believes that the Taishan incident could represent a serious setback to the whole programme, and wants the UK Government to call an indefinite halt to the Hinkley Point C development until the dangers represented by the design flaw can be fully ascertained and an assessment made as whether the flaw can be rectified. If it cannot then it is our view that it would be foolhardy to go ahead with plans to install reactors to the EPR design at these sites when they will continue to pose an unknown future danger to plant operators and the public.”
Notes for Editors
(1) CRIIRAD – ‘Incident on the Taishan 1 EPR: CRIIRAD calls on ASN and calls for the greatest transparency’ (In French), 28 November 2021
(2) The letter sent to Minister of State for Energy, Greg Hands MP, and the Chief Executive of the Office of Nuclear Regulation, Mr Mark Foy, on 15 December:
Dear Minister and Mr Foy,
Re. TAISHAN 1 ACCIDENT
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 attempting 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
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. Please respond via the NFLA Secretary, Mr Richard Outram, NFLA Secretary, by email to email@example.com or by letter to NFLA Secretariat, Level 3, Town Hall Extension, Manchester, M60 3NY.
Councillor David Blackburn,
Chair, Nuclear Free Local Authorities
For more information, please contact Richard Outram, NFLA Secretary, at (Email) firstname.lastname@example.org, (Mobile) 07583097793.