Posts Tagged ‘Heysham’

Nuclear power: renaissance or nightmare?

The thing with nuclear power is that while the risk of a serious accident may be small the consequences are monumental. Is this something we just have to live with or are there things we can do to minimise the risk of accidents and/or their severity if they happen? I think there are.

The physics involved is well understood and is NOT a problem, not even the disposal of high level waste (although antis like to pretend it is). What IS a problem is the regulation – by which I mean regulation in the widest sense covering design and operation plus the entire supervisory system from formal government agencies to the management company.

My introduction to this came in the late 1980s when I attended a series of conferences for my then employer (we sold into the civil nuclear business). At the first of these conferences a paper was delivered by someone developing an advanced reactor design. Among the advantages claimed for the new design was that it was failsafe.

What! That’s an advantage? You mean existing designs AREN’T failsafe?

That, unfortunately, turned out to be precisely what he meant. And that in turn precisely explains my thesis. It is and always was possible to design better, safer reactors but somehow no one involved in design or regulatory approval thought to insist on that. Nuclear safety is not about difficult physics; it’s about about managing people and organizations and priorities to eliminate, or at any rate minimise, risk.

On another occasion, conference delegates went on a visit to a reactor – Heysham near Morecombe in Lancashire. A senior manager from a continental utility asked about planning for the evacuation of people in the area in the event of an accident as mandated by international guidelines. He was puzzled how it could be done given the large population in the area. After some embarrassed foot-shuffling the locals admitted that there was no plan because it wouldn’t be possible to evacuate so many people.

Heysham is one of the sites where a new reactor is planned.

On yet another occasion, a few of us stayed behind to chat informally after one of the formal sessions. One of those present, the highly respected technical director of a major European nuclear utility, opined that some western countries shouldn’t host reactors. Someone asked who and why. He replied, “Oh! Britain. There isn’t a culture of engineering integrity and in any case Britain’s regulatory apparatus just isn’t up to the job”.

He was spot on about regulation as subsequent event have proven in many sectors – from the abysmal performance of the FSA prior to and after the financial crisis, to hospitals, to the examination boards and many more. He was also right about engineering integrity; it is the ultimate backstop for regulatory failures. Where it exists, a mid level engineer who spots a problem can expect to be taken seriously and not brushed off. In Britain the corporate and/or political context dominates and he will be told not to rock the boat. Everyone has someone higher up the chain on their backs wanting solutions, not problems. Messages pass down the line but not nearly so well up it so the engineering voice is not reliably heard in the boardroom.

Good luck and happy job hunting to anyone brave enough to suggest that, just perhaps, Heysham isn’t a suitable location for a new reactor. And by the way, tsunamis do happen in Britain but just not as often and not from the same causes as at places near subduction zones.

Our culture of confining engineers (and other technical disciplines) to the engine room below decks is part of the reason that engineers and the like don’t punch their weight in Britain. In all the years I worked in large companies I never came across a senior engineer (or whatever) right up to board level who told the accountants what management reports he wanted. Invariably, it was the accountants who decided – even when the accountants concerned were emphatically in the wet-behind-the-ears category.

Another part of the problem is the hostile framing and bad-mouthing of ALL regulation in some political circles. Propagandists for this view may never have intended it to be applied to reactor safety but the chances are that it will be sooner or later. Not every regulator at the coal (or reactor) face is as adept at getting the context right as the agenda-driven politicians who spout this nonsense so it’s a racing certainty that some will imagine that what they are supposed to do is deliver regulation-lite. After all that’s happened in banking, there are many regulators who still don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) that they should be enforcing the law (itself a type of regulation).

Then there is the question of the operating company’s ultimate objective. Is it ‘to keep the lights on’ or is it ‘to make a profit and keep the lights on’? Introducing a single additional objective can completely transform the outcome as anyone who saw last week’s Dispatches about Branson’s Virgin Care will know. Despite all the safeguards and regulations many patients of Virgin Care now find it very difficult to see a doctor despite a blizzard of justification from the company. I’m sure it’s not what Branson (or Andrew Lansley who drew up the enabling legislation) intended to happen but, like the fable of the scorpion and the frog, it’s in the nature of things that it does. Lansley and his fellow travellers put the health of the nation at risk by ignoring that simple fact. We must not make the same mistakes with nuclear.

In conclusion then, we can have safe nuclear power but only if we get the regulation right. That will require swimming against the current of established UK practice which is going to be immensely difficult for government to deliver. But we must try.