Accident at Wylfa costs power firm pounds 250,000 fine

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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Nuclear Electric was fined pounds 250,000 by a Crown Court judge yesterday with pounds 138,00 costs for safety breaches after it took nine hours to shut down a nuclear reactor following an accident.

Afterwards, the state-owned company said no members of staff had been disciplined following the incident two years ago but many lessons had been learned and changes made following its own internal inquiry.

``We recognise the severity of the fine and we accept the concerns of the public,'' said Ray Hall, Nuclear Electric operations director. But while it was an incident which should never have happened, he said it posed no danger to the public or the workforce at the Wylfa Magnox power station on the island of Anglesey, Gwynedd.

Nuclear Electric had pleaded guilty to four charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act at Mold Crown Court. It was prosecuted by the Government's Health and Safety Executive following the incident on 31, July,1993.

The judge,, Mr Justice Morland, said he was satisfied that Nuclear Electric was acting responsibly in its current safety measures but there had been a breakdown in practice.

During the two-day case the court was told that the incident began when a 3ft long, 130lb steel grab on the end of crane used to lift nuclear fuel rods broke off and fell 40ft into a reactor. A faulty weld was to blame.

It lodged in one of the 6,150 fuel channels in the reactor, blocking a small part of the flow of carbon dioxide coolant gas through the structure.

After control room staff detected the breakage they allowed the reactor to keep operating for nine hours before shutting it down. Mr Justice Morland said he accepted that it was the company's safety instructions which were to blame for that failure.

The charges covered both the failure to prevent the grab breaking and the delay in shutting down the reactor.

Mr Justice Morland said no one was exposed to actual danger and there was no foundation for the suggestion that there could have been a melt- down. The worst that could have happened was melting of nuclear fuel and a fire in the channel where the grab had fallen. If that had happened, the resulting rise in temperature would have been detected and the reactor immediately shut down, he said.

Power station staff had believed that the missing grab was in a chute leading to the reactor rather than a fuel channel. He ``utterly rejected'' the suggestion, made by the Health and Safety Executive, which acted as prosecutor, that staff delayed shutting down the reactor so as not to lose electricity sales. ``I am sure safety was at the forefront of their minds,'' he said.

Bill Ross, deputy chief inspector of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, part of the Health and Safety Executive which brought the prosecution, said he was satisfied with the fine. ``I think it was sufficient to sting the industry into taking very good note of the implications and the lessons to be learned from this prosecution. This will send a very clear signal to the top management.''

Wylfa is one of Britain's first generation Magnox reactors which will remain in the public sector when the more modern AGR and PWR power stations are privatised.

When the reactor was shut down there was a routine venting of slightly radioactive gases into the atmosphere, but the station released more than the Government's pollution inspectorate had licensed it to. It was fined pounds 34,000 for that last year by magistrates at Almwch, Anglesey.