The post-Fukushima Weightman report into UK nuclear safety has been welcomed by the Government and industry as being favourable, but contains warnings to the industry and regulators.
 
Chris Huhne has interpreted the report on the UK's nuclear power stations and facilities as giving the green light to nuclear newbuild, but critics claim it is "rushed".

The report, by Dr. Mike Weightman, the chief nuclear inspector at the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), "sees no reason to curtail the operation of power plants or other nuclear facilities in the UK" in the wake of the powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami which crippled the Japanese plants in March, according to Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, who laid it before Parliament yesterday.

Huhne told the Commons that Weightman "believes the industry has reacted responsibly and appropriately, displaying strong leadership for safety and safety culture".

But the report makes a number of recommendations, requiring reviews of emergency procedures, of techniques for estimating radioactive source terms, and of the adequacy of the system of planning controls for commercial and residential developments off the nuclear licensed site, which will add to delays and costs for any developers.

It also charges the nuclear industry and the ONR to have "more open, transparent and trusted communications, and relationships, with the public".

Obfuscation was a widespread criticism of the industry in Japan and worldwide, both before and after the tsunami.

Although the Weightman report does say "there is no need to change the present siting strategies" for new nuclear power stations in the UK, it adds that the nuclear industry should "review the dependency of nuclear safety on off‐site infrastructure in extreme conditions" and look at flooding, power-supply and storage risks.

Caroline Flint, speaking for the first time in her new role replacing Meg Hillier as Labour's Shadow Energy Secretary, gave full support to the report, adding, "Now the Tory-led Government needs to give investors the support and confidence they need to deliver the construction of new capacity in the nuclear industry”.

Sellafield criticism

Sellafield is singled out for criticism by Dr. Weightman's report, which says that Sellafield Ltd, the company which runs the site, Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority which owns Sellafield, and the British Government “all regard urgent progress with the legacy ponds and silos remediation and retrievals programme as a national priority”.

“This priority is reinforced by the example of the Fukushima accident, where the vulnerabilities of an older plant were not sufficiently recognised and addressed,” says Dr. Weightman.

“The main focus for the site must remain the retrieval of the radioactive inventory from these facilities and the processing of the material into safer waste forms,” he reports. 

The report says the storage ponds for nuclear waste at Sellafield, some of which are up to 50 years old, "can never be brought up to modern standards".

The heat-generating capacity of the radioactive material stored in the ponds is lower than that of fuel in an operating nuclear power plant, so accident scenarios generally develop over longer timescales than those modelled for nuclear power plants.

Sellafield’s management is reviewing the plant’s cooling, ventilation, inerting and containment systems and “the availability and reliability of these systems under accident conditions”, but the work has “yet to be completed”.

Flooding, venting and power supplies

The report also cautions about the danger of flooding.

It warns nuclear plant managers and developers (reiterating the point made in June in the Government's Response to Consultation on the Revised Draft National Policy Statements for Energy Infrastructure) that they must examine "the effects of the credible maximum scenario in the most recent projections of marine and coastal flooding", and "demonstrate that in principle adaptation to such a scenario would be possible".

The nuclear industry must "initiate a review of flooding studies, including from tsunamis, in light of the Japanese experience, to confirm the design basis and margins for flooding at UK nuclear sites".

It should also look at the ventilation and venting routes of radioactive  gas and liquids for nuclear facilities.

The report admits that detailed information is not available on the performance of concrete, other structures and equipment, in earthquakes (Recommendation IR‐15).

Nor is there sufficient evidence about the "robustness and potential unavailability of off–site electrical supplies under severe hazard conditions"  (Recommendation IR‐17).

Rushed report

Back in the Commons, it was left to Caroline Lucas of the Green Party to be one of the few MPs expressing scepticism, calling the report "rushed out", because of the lack of evidence backing the overall claim of safety.

She complained that by being released in the form of a Written Statement it offered "little chance for Parliamentary scrutiny".

She added: "It will do little to reassure the British public that the nuclear industry can be trusted to power our energy future".

Greenpeace provided evidence for this view by pointing out that its release is "significantly ahead of the major international comparable reviews into the implications of Fukushima", which are:

  • 31 December: ONR's final report on EU stress tests.
  • April 2012: Independent peer review of the national reports on the EU stress tests
  • March 2012: UN action plan on nuclear safety
  • August 2012: The Convention on Nuclear Safety meeting to consider the lessons of Fukushima.

Louise Hutchins, Greenpeace Senior Energy Campaigner, said: "It's designed with one objective - to give the green light to a new generation of nuclear power stations, irrespective of the safety, environmental or rising financial costs of those nuclear stations. This is government complacency."

Labour's Paul Flynn MP, a long-time critic of nuclear power, agreed: "The country needs consideration of the full implications, principally the cost that is making nuclear power unaffordable and uninsurable throughout the planet.

"We are not getting that and we should ask the Government to do their full job and present us with a report that is comprehensive and full."

Under questioning, Mr. Huhne admitted that an email had been sent immediately after the Fukushima disaster from an official in the Business Department warning that it must not derail the UK's expansion of nuclear power and appealing to the industry to help the Government present the pro-nuclear case.

In answer to criticism that Dr Weightman could have looked at the costs of nuclear newbuild, Mr. Huhne said the Dr. Weightman "quite rightly, as the chief nuclear inspector charged with safety, takes the view that safety comes first regardless of the issues of costs".

Chris Huhne is progressing with plans to establish the ONR as a statutory body. Dr Weightman is to report within a year on the progress that the industry is making to improve standards, including plant layout, flood defences and other issues.