Nuclear sites still subject to same inspectors

Joining the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is probably the best guarantee there is of a job for life - or longer. "We still visit sites which have shut down their reactors but are in the process of decommissioning them," said a spokesman yesterday. "The NII can and will check the site until it poses no radiological threat. That can take up to 135 years."

The 160 inspectors and 10 support staff of the NII (which is part of the Health and Safety Executive) take their long-lasting task very seriously. With 41 generating reactors and a host of other sites - such as British Nuclear Fuels' reprocessing plant at Sellafield, and the Royal Navy's nuclear submarine repair docks at Rosyth and Devonport - there is no shortage of work. The prime concern is the safe operation of the sites, to minimise the risk to workers and the rest of the population.

To that end, several inspectors are assigned to particular sites, where they oversee procedures full-time; others perform random inspections to ensure that procedures are complied with. "We can turn up in the middle of the night and demand to see the control room," said the spokesman. "Though, of course, you can never really make a surprise visit to a nuclear power station, because of the security surrounding it. But it's the next best thing."

Though inspectors can demand the immediate shutdown of a reactor or site, they usually wave that big stick at site operators while speaking softly to them about the advantages of making that decision themselves. British Energy's unpublicised stoppage at two of its stations was not done directly at the NII's request. But it is clear that if the work now being carried out had gone undone, the NII would have been forceful.

The inspectorate has shown its willingness to prosecute site operators. BNFL has been fined repeatedly for excessive discharges and violating safety rules. And last September, Nuclear Electric was fined pounds 250,000, with pounds 138,000 costs, for an incident at the Wylfa Magnox power station [which is not included in the privatisation] in Anglesey. Staff there took nine hours to shut down the reactor following an accident to its coolant system.

"I think it was sufficient to sting the industry into taking very good note of the implications," said Bill Ross, deputy chief inspector of the NII, afterwards. And attitudes among inspectors will not be changed by privatisation, said a spokesman: "It's not a question of attitude, anyway," he said. "It's about standards."