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Industry, government downplay nuclear safety worries

Cracks in ageing reactors 'normal'

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Sources in the nuclear industry and government have downplayed reports claiming cracks in ageing reactors are causing safety fears.

The Health and Safety Executive responded to reports in today's Guardian of inspection documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act with a statement designed to allay panic. It said: "If HSE were not confident in the safety of the reactor cores we would not allow the reactors to operate."

The fears centre on fractures in the graphite bricks inside reactor cores. After visiting the Hinkley Point B reactor in Somerset this April, one inspector wrote: "While I do not believe that a large release [of radiation] is a likely scenario, some lesser event...is, I believe, inevitable at some stage if a vigilant precautionary approach is not adopted.

"There is an an increased likelihood of increased risk should we agree to continued operation."

The documents say safety officials are unable to determine the cause of the deterioration at some of British Energy's 13 Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs).

Within an AGR, a column of graphite receives uranium fuel rods into extremely precise holes and serves to moderate the flow of neutrons. It slows them down to a speed where they are able to sustain nuclear fission in the uranium. Cracks in the column could lead to misalignment of the rods, jamming the reactor and making shut-down difficult.

The HSE said it was happy British Energy has the situation under control. Its statement read: "Matters have moved on since April and British Energy has provided new evidence in support of the reactor core safety case."

A spokesman for British Energy told the BBC: "Cracks will occur in some of the bricks as part of the normal ageing process within the graphite reactor core. This is a phenomenon known about, and anticipated for, within the safety case."

The disclosures come at an awkward time for the government, however. Tony Blair has all but expressed outright support for a new generation of reactors to meet growing energy demands and climate change obligations ahead of the soon to be released DTI Energy Review. He has admitted an about-face on expanding nuclear power since the last policy review in 2003. Blair told the Commons liaison committee yesterday: "I'll be totally honest with you, I've changed my mind."

Proponents of nuclear power might argue the deterioration in plants installed decades ago buttresses their case for a new generation of reactors. ®

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