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Energy: Nuclear Power Stations

Volume 684: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they are considering closing any nuclear power stations as a result of the Nuclear Safety Inspectorate’s assessment that cracks in the reactor cores of six stations may compromise their operation.

My Lords, the Government are not considering any such action. Decisions about the continued operation of each of the UK’s nuclear power stations are a matter forthe operators, British Energy and Magnox Electric, subject to rigorous regulatory oversight by the independent safety regulator, HSE’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. I am satisfied that the regulators are fully engaged with the operators onthis and that this is not a matter on which the Government need to take any action.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that neither the operators nor the inspectorate actually knows either how the cracks will develop or what effect they will have on the core? Given that many of the stations are past their sell-by date already, is the Minister convinced that extending their life still further is a good idea? Will he further accept that it does not give the public much confidence that this report on aspects of essential nuclear safety was buried and had to be dragged out under the Freedom of Information Act?

My Lords, the report was not buried; it was relevant to the people who hadto take action consistent with the report. The inspectorate is in consultation with the operators to guarantee that effective action is taken. The noble Baroness will recognise that the alarm reflected in certain newspapers recently paralleled a similar occurrence five years ago, when the inspectors moved with dispatch to ensure the safety of the industry. She is right that two of the Magnox operations are coming close to the end of their working life, and action will be taken accordingly.

My Lords, is it not clear that the problem of the cracks in the graphite blocks in AGR stations in fact has a long history that goes back a number of years? The report that the noble Baroness referred to, by a firm called Large and Associates, which purports to be a complete dossier of the correspondence between the inspectorate and British Energy, in fact is nothing of the sort. It is, if I may say so, a very partial document in both senses of that word. The Minister’s answer that this is quite rightly left to the inspectorate must be supported. As the inspector, Mike Weightman, wrote in the Guardian yesterday:

“We would not allow the reactors to continue operating if we were not confident in their safety”.

Cannot we put our entire trust in that?

My Lords, I indicated that the incident that was recently referred to in somewhat alarmist terms had been paralleled in 2000 and 2001. As the noble Lord has indicated, there have been features when the issue has arisen. The nuclear inspectorate has the right to and certainly would close down any reactor that looked at all as if it threatened safety standards. This is not about a threat at that level. This is a malfunction with regard to a limited aspect of the operation, not occasioning that kind of anxiety. The inspectorate has taken action to ensure that appropriate responses are made.

My Lords, the Minister has said that we should not be too worried about the cracks in the graphite core, as there are cracks in the coresof Hinkley Point B, Hartlepool in Cleveland, Hunterston B, and Heysham 1 and there are suspected cracks at Dungeness and Torness. The Minister’s view that we should not be worried contradicts what the inspector said in his report. The inspector concluded that there was,

“an increased likelihood of increased risk should we agree to continued operation”.

Although it might not be dangerous as yet, if we are looking to plug the energy gap by increasing the life cycle of the AGR reactors, there could well be an incident.

My Lords, I do not want to minimise the concerns that the nuclear inspectorate identified with regard to the cracks and the requirement for action. If the noble Lord is going to quote the inspectorate, so am I: the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate does not view these as serious safety concerns. We are not talking about anxieties that lead to shut-down; we are talking about certain aspects of operating malfunction. I am not suggesting that we should be complacent about that situation; the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is not paid to be complacent.

My Lords, is not one of the answers to the noble Lord opposite, perhaps in view of a future danger, that we should get on and build new reactors now?

My Lords, as I andthe noble Baroness who asked the Question have indicated, several Magnox reactors are reaching the end of their working life and need restoration or replacement. That issue will be considered in the energy review, for which the House will have to wait only a very short time.

My Lords, having represented for some 30 years the constituency in which the Hinkley Point AGR is located, during both its building and its operation, can I confirm to the Minister that the cracks in the graphite blocks were anticipated in the design and have been a matter of continuing importance to the NII in keeping the matter under review? Is not the answer to the noble Baroness who asked the Question that it is manifestly sensible to keep the AGR running, provided thatit can be operated safely, that that is the NII’s responsibility and that it will not authorise its continued working unless it is safe?

My Lords, will the Minister place in the Library of the House copies of all the reports that have been made to the NII concerning this problem?

My Lords, I will certainly look at that question, but I emphasise that such reports represent some of the documents on the working relationship between the operators and the inspectorate. My problem in immediately acceding to the noble Lord’s request is the question of whether every inspectorate for all our industries should present all of their papers to the Library of the House. I am not convinced that that would be sensible.