Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

As Safe as Houses?

In C.Spiby on May 25, 2011 at 9:32 am

The Nuclear Fallout of the Japanese Earthquake & Tsunami

While the reactors at the Japanese Fukushima nuclear plant were being dowsed in sea water in hope of cooling their highly-radioactive contents, Oldbury on the other side of the Severn let off a worryingly tall plume of steam which could be seen from miles around.

Here’s one witness – a mr. Jonathan Bailey: “I live on the edge of Thornbury (top of Butt Lane )… from this view the clouds of steam were as wide as the power station and there was a loud roaring noise – and I am 3 miles away as the crow flies.”

There’s been a lot of concern and calls for a re-examination of the ‘lessons to be learned’ – but no abandonment or even stalling of the new generation of privately-owned nuclear power stations in the UK, including along our Severn.

This is based on the premise that the Japanese geological uniqueness makes a similar tsunami impossible here. Right? There was one in 1607. Then it killed 2,000 people and flooded areas as far inland as Glastonbury.  In fact, Dr Haslett of Bath Spa University College and Dr Bryant conducted a geological survey of the estuary in 2004 and concluded that “two large chunks of farmland… were simply washed away, one where the foundation of the Second Severn Crossing is and the other is now the reservoir for the Oldbury Nuclear Power Station”.

A spokesperson from SANE (Shepperdine Against Nuclear Energy) said: “A possible cause of the 1607 tsunami is not yet known, but the possibilities include a submarine landslide off the continental shelf between Ireland and Cornwall , or an earthquake along an active fault system in the sea south of Ireland . This fault system has apparently experienced an earthquake greater than magnitude 4 on the Richter scale within the last 20 years, so the chance of a bigger tsunami earthquake is a possibility.”

Farfetched? Alarmist? I’ll let you decide, but I guess – on the plus side – it is probably right to say that another event like that is unlikely, if not entirely impossible. I mean it’s not as if we’re building these things along the second fastest tidal river in the world, right? Oh, we are. I guess it’s a good job then we’re not prone to a lot of flooding either. July 2007 anyone? I guess at least we’re not planning on storing the radioactive waste on site with the new builds. We are! And the site is three times the size of the existing one? Blimey.

At least there’s no case of international terrorists mad enough to hijack civil aircraft as a fuel-filled missile in a co-ordinated attack. Like, um, 9/11. Or a car loaded with explosives like at Glasgow airport; what about 7/7 or the audacious IRA mortar attack on the MI6 headquarters in London? These plants seem pretty vulnerable when you put it like that.

But none of that has happened to us. Yet.

I mean it’s not as if Oldbury is regularly shut-down for safety reasons, is it? Oh, hang on – that’s how we started this – with the shutdown and steam plumes of 17th March 2011, the very same week Japan’s reactors of approximately the same age were at near-meltdown.

This event turned out to be benign. Failing to find out anything on their website I turned to the South Gloucestershire County Council’s Emergency Planning who, seemingly unaware of the event, merely passed on my questions to Magnox, the current operators at Oldbury. They said the issue was “Due to an electrical problem within equipment, housed in the turbine hall, an automatic safety process caused the shutting down of the turbines and the associated Reactor Two at the site.   The turbine hall is outside of the reactor building and is on the non nuclear side of the plants operation.  The steam which was released as part of this process is used to drive the turbines on the non nuclear side and is at no point in contact with radioactive material.

The automatic shutting down of the reactor is again a safety measure and stops the generation of heat used to produce steam to drive the turbines. 

Whilst I can fully understand your concerns in light of events in Japan, this event does not represent any safety issue at the site and is simply a standard safety process.”

Sounds fine. But consider the Oldbury fire of 2007, which also triggered a shut down. Imagine if that had got out of hand?

It’s all very well that these malfunctions occur in the non-nuclear parts of the plant and that their automatic shutdown is purely precautionary.

But if precautions of that magnitude are that necessary then the risk can’t be entirely benign. And let’s not forget, it wasn’t the tsunami or earthquake which released the radiation in Japan or (at the time of writing) could potentially expose their rods – putting the disaster at Chernobyl level – but the consequence of these things damaging the non-nuclear parts of the plant.

Following Japan, some countries have delayed decisions on new nuclear power; others like China cancelled them for now. No such move here. No delay – just observation which, one suspects, is mindful of the cost of delay since we’re dealing with the likes of commercial giants E-on and the leading French provider of nuclear power (Horizon their partnership is called). And yet this week I’ve heard the most sense from Walt Patterson of the London-based think tank, Chatham House when he said of nuclear power[i]:  “Why turn to the slowest, the most expensive, the narrowest, the most inflexible, and the riskiest in financial terms? Nuclear power needs climate change more than climate change needs nuclear power.”

You can see photos of the 17th March 2011 steam plumes and the 2007 fire at Oldbury on the local Facebook group page for ‘NO to new NUCLEAR POWER at Oldbury‘.


[i] Cited in BBC News online ‘Nuclear power: Energy solution or evil curse?’ by James Melik Reporter, Business Daily, BBC World Service, 14 March 2011 Last updated at 23:46 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12730473)

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