The nuclear safety regulator has been accused of turning a blind eye to dozens of serious mistakes at power plants and military bases. A torpedo inadvertently fired by a Navy warship at the nuclear submarine dock in Plymouth and three road accidents involving vehicles carrying radioactive material were among the events dismissed as posing no danger. Analysis by The Times shows that while the number of safety incidents formally declared by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has been stable for a decade, the rate of faults recorded by the watchdog has doubled since 2010 to more than one a day. Between 2012 and 2015 the ONR gave 973 “anomalies” an International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) score of zero or left them unrated, meaning they were judged to have been of “no nuclear safety significance”. Among them were: Four cases where tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, was found at elevated levels in groundwater around the Dungeness B reactor in Kent; At least 70 safety incidents on the UK’s main nuclear warhead base at Aldermaston, Berkshire, including the contamination of several workers and a power cut across the site; An accident where a vehicle carrying nuclear material on the M1 hit a lorry, and another where a transport lorry flipped over, damaging two containers holding radioactive chemicals; Uranium “sludge” and an unstable form of caesium left in bin bags at Springfields, a former power plant, and Amersham nuclear materials factory; At least a dozen leaks of radioactive substances and more than 30 fires at power stations, including an event where a control panel at the Sellafield site was burnt out. Experts on the nuclear industry said it was extraordinary that these events had been dismissed so lightly. Some said they were concerned that the ONR’s close ties to the industry had compromised its willingness to expose mistakes. One experienced engineer, speaking anonymously, said: “I do believe that the ONR downplays the incidents’ severity and the incompetence that has led to these events.” A former member of the government’s nuclear safety advisory committee said the events looked like “strange anomalies” that should have been taken much more seriously. The document shows that radiation alarms at Britain’s ports and airports were set off on 15 separate occasions by packages that were not supposed to contain any radioactive material, including four at Heathrow. It also reveals that a contractor at Harwell swallowed plutonium, a worker at the Devonport nuclear submarine base in Plymouth breathed in an unstable isotope of cobalt and 13 others at various sites had worryingly high radiation counts found in urine. Sellafield, a fuel reprocessing centre and former reactor in Cumbria that has been called the world’s riskiest nuclear site, recorded 167 problems, by far the largest number. These included several power cuts, ground contaminations, unplanned shutdowns and a complete loss of cooling water around the reactor. The ONR works closely with the 37 nuclear sites it regulates and asks them to help to draw up safety plans. This relationship has been too cosy for some experts, who worry that the ONR is letting too many accidents around reactors slip under the radar.
Times 27th Dec 2016 read more »
BBC 27th Dec 2016 read more »