Nuclear plant shut down by power failure

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DOUNREAY, the nuclear plant handling a controversial shipment of atomic waste from Georgia, was closed down on Thursday after its main and back-up power supplies failed.

Nuclear safety inspectors were in urgent talks yesterday after claims by environmentalists that the failure may have highlighted a deadly design fault in Britain's nuclear installations.

The shut-down of the plant, No D1203, is embarrassing for the Government, which agreed to take the Georgian consignment at the request of America. The Georgian nuclear facility from which it was "rescued" was considered to be too dilapidated, and at the mercy of terrorists.

The power cut happened on Thursday at 9pm when telecommunications workers sliced through power lines while digging a trench for cables around the Scottish plant. Back-up supplies failed, resulting in the breakdown of a number of systems, including vital ventilation equipment.

Such a failure at Dounreay, although embarrassing, is not necessarily immediately dangerous in a reprocessing plant. However, failure of main and back-up supplies at a nuclear power plant could result in dangerous overheating, a prospect which Greenpeace International wants examined.

"It seems astonishing that Dounreay has been operating all these years with a power supply whose back-up appears not to work," said Mike Townsley, a Greenpeace campaigner. "We believe it failed because the main supply and the back-up were run through the same channels. If that is true, then this is an appalling design fault that should have been picked up.

"We want the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate to examine the power supplies to other plants as a matter of urgency. I wouldn't want to be anywhere near a nuclear power plant if its cooling systems were shut down by a power cut."

The UK Atomic Energy Authority, which operates Dounreay, said the power supply was run along a ring main which was cut while men dug ducting for cables. However, Lynne Staples-Scott, a UKAEA spokeswoman, denied that the main and back-up cables were run through the same channel. She said "two ends" of the cable appeared to have been breached, so when back- up power began to flow, it never reached the plant. "We don't know what caused the second disruption and we are conducting an investigation," she said. "But there was no danger to anyone at any time."

The main reprocessing plant was closed by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate two years ago amid safety criticisms, but other operating areas were shut down on Thursday.

Plant D1203, which is scheduled to turn 4.3 kilos of Georgian unirradiated material into medical diagnostic deposits, reopened with the rest of the plant at 1pm yesterday and will process the consignment, as planned, later this month.

Peter Morgan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, said: "We shall be awaiting the results of the UKAEA's own inquiry first, before deciding how to proceed. We may then look for whether there could be a common failure of design at other plants."