December, 27 2016 by Oliver Moody, The Times
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.
Brief accounts of the incidents that were recorded in the three years up to March 2015 but logged as being of no significance were quietly published earlier this year in what is thought to be the first report of its kind.
Experts said that some of these events were more severe than many of the accidents officially reported as safety problems by the ONR, with an INES score of one or higher.
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.
Paul Dorfman, founder of the Nuclear Consulting Group and honorary senior research fellow at University College London’s Energy Institute, said: “The seriousness and scale of these INES 0 incidents seems to imply either cover-up or cock-up. Either way, this is bad news for nuclear safety in the UK.”
Benjamin Sovacool, professor of energy policy at the University of Sussex, said that the ONR was dogged by conflict of interest as it was both cheerleader and policeman for the industry. “My guess would be that the ONR takes an approach to classification that suits its interests, so it may indeed downplay the seriousness of events,” he said.
The revelations come as the government is moving to abandon the INES scores for a vaguer system of green, amber and red warnings. It also plans to give the nuclear industry a greater say in how it is regulated next March.
Richard Savage, who took over as the chief nuclear inspector nine months ago, recently paid tribute to the ONR’s “countless regulatory achievements” and called for a more “collaborative” relationship with the private sector.
In a speech last month Baroness Neville-Rolfe, the energy minister, praised the “good progress” the watchdog had made on safety regulation.
The ONR said that its safety ratings were strictly in line with international guidelines and that there was no conflict of interest in its role. “We are robust in upholding the law and use our regulatory enforcement powers to hold the industry to account wherever necessary,” a spokesman said.
“The rating of nuclear safety ‘events’ is based on agreed international criteria and it is wrong to suggest that we would seek to ‘downplay’ these. The standards of safety we expect from the nuclear industry are extremely challenging and the majority of events are of very minor nuclear safety significance.”
Analysis: Aim is to stay under the radar
The work of the body tasked with keeping potentially the most dangerous industry in Britain safe is tough and sometimes seems impossibly contradictory.
On the one hand it must stand guard over a vast and crumbling estate stretching from nuclear submarine docks to warehouses where degraded fuel is stored in glass.
On the other, it is obliged by Treasury rules to give the sector room for financial growth and draws 94 per cent of its budget from the companies it was set up to regulate.
It is a small miracle that most people have not heard of the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), the country’s first specialist nuclear watchdog, which in March marked the second year of its independence.
The ONR was set up as an arm of the Health and Safety Executive shortly after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. It was set free as a statutory corporation, with a quasi-autonomous status similar to that of Channel 4, in 2014.
It is overseen by the Department for Work and Pensions on the surreal ground that it is the only ministry unlikely to have anything more than a glancing interest in the nuclear business. Adriènne Kelbie, the £145,000-a-year chief executive of the ONR, joined in January.
Her past two jobs were as head of the Disclosure and Barring Service and deputy chief executive of Hull city council.
“Enabling regulation,” the ONR says in its newsletter, “is a constructive approach with dutyholders and other relevant stakeholders to enable delivery against clear and prioritised safety outcomes.”
It 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.