By Paul Homewood
Key safety components in the UK’s first new nuclear power station for 30 years may need to be redesigned and the project could be delayed after defects were detected at a similar reactor in China.
The £22 billion Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset is already well over budget and a decade late but the defects mean that the scheduled date for starting electricity generation, of June 2026, may have to be revised.
The same power plant design is due to be used for another nuclear power station, Sizewell C in Suffolk, which is planned but has not yet been approved.
An investigation is still under way into the cause of the problems with the plant in Taishan, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. It was shut down in August after reports of damage to fuel rods, which hold nuclear materials used to fuel the reactor.
The plant is operated by China General Nuclear Power Group and owned in partnership with the French state-controlled EDF, the two companies involved in building Hinkley Point C.
The Commission for Independent Research and Information on Radioactivity, a French association created in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, said that a whistleblower had reported that a design flaw in the reactor pressure vessel could be the cause of the problem at Taishan.
An industry source told The Times that the investigation was likely to show that the pressure vessel was “demonstrably safe” but it might also show that design changes were needed.
Paul Dorfman, a nuclear expert at the University of Sussex, said: “If the news we are hearing from the Taishan EPR [European pressurised reactor] is right, then it’s beginning to look like there’s a potential generic fault with the key safety mechanism of the EPR reactor design itself.
“If so, this is serious news for ongoing construction at Hinkley Point C and plans for Sizewell C.
“There’s a couple of ‘ifs’ there, but the thing with nuclear is the very limited scope for safety error. We’ve learnt, to our cost, if something goes wrong, picking up the pieces is costly in economic, environmental and human terms.”
A spokesman for EDF’s UK division said: “Inspection work on reactor one at Taishan is still under way. The cause of the issue with a number of fuel rods will not be known until the end of these studies and the findings will benefit future reactor operations, including those in Britain.
“Fuel performance issues are not unusual in nuclear operation and this issue does not pose a risk to people or the environment.”
The spokesman declined to comment when asked if the issues at Taishan might delay the start-up of Hinkley Point C.
If it is built by 2026, Hinkley Point C would be completed 31 years after Sizewell B became operational.
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DECEMBER 2, 2021