Harnessing the power of nuclear energy does not come without risks. That is why in the nuclear industry, and at Centrica, the health and safety of employees, communities and the environment is absolutely paramount.
Our 20% stake in British Energy, involves specific safety challenges at the existing nuclear power stations. While we do not operate any of the nuclear facilities, we have a responsibility as a minority shareholder and as a member of the board of British Energy Group plc to monitor and oversee safety performance. EDF Energy has a strong safety record and for more detailed information on the health and safety performance of the existing fleet of nuclear power stations, please see www.edfenergy.com/sustainability.
The earthquake and Tsunami in Japan was a terrible human tragedy and the subsequent nuclear disaster at Fukushima, in March 2011, was a significant test of the industry’s ability to deal with a crisis; a reminder that we can never be complacent about health, safety and the environment.
Following these events HM Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations Dr Mike Weightman was asked to produce a report on the UK nuclear industry. In September 2011, the UK Government published his report which is positive for the UK nuclear industry, giving a clear endorsement of the safety culture and current performance. We have pledged, with our partner EDF Energy to proactively implement the 26 recommendations in Dr Weightman's report.
In June 2011, Ipsos Mori published a Nuclear Response, an update on GB attitudes to nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima incident. One of the key findings was that while globally only 31% of people support continuation of nuclear builds, this number is significantly higher in Great Britain at 43% with widespread acceptance that the country needs nuclear energy for the future.
The radioactivity associated with nuclear power generation introduces additional risks relative to conventional sources of power generation. Radiation is emitted and radioactive waste is produced during power generation which must be contained and handled in a safe way.
The UK's civil nuclear programme has an outstanding safety record with a high degree of public transparency. To ensure the safety of nuclear power facilities, the nuclear industry is heavily regulated both at the design and operations stages with legislation governing safety and security. Plant operators must implement a number of procedures to ensure legislative requirements are met and to successfully secure and maintain a licence to operate.
Each power station is governed by a Nuclear Site Licence, which is issued under the Nuclear Installations Act. The Nuclear Installations Act is enforced by the Office of Nuclear Regulation, which is in turn part of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The ONR monitors compliance of nuclear power stations and has the power to shut down a plant.
For more information on the safe operation of nuclear power plants, please visit the HSE Nuclear Directorate.
Safety – after Fukushima
Nuclear reactors are built with redundant safety systems to help prevent the spread of radioactivity when a cataclysmic event occurs. However, the events at Fukushima have shown that some catastrophes can overwhelm even this meticulous planning. This has understandably raised questions about the safety of reactors and of nuclear technology in general.
We recognise with our partner EDF Energy that we have a huge responsibility as operators of high hazard energy infrastructure to ensure their safe operation. In the design, construction and operation of nuclear and other facilities, safety must be at the forefront of our minds, to ensure our plant are robust to even the most extreme natural disasters and that our operations personnel are ready to take control in the event of a disaster. All existing nuclear fleet and the new build plants we plan to construct with EDF are designed to withstand an earthquake and all the plants are protected against credible storm surge and tsunami events for the UK1.
After the accident, and in parallel to the UK regulator's review and report, the EU called for a programme of 'Stress Tests' across the member countries with each nuclear operator submitting details of its safety assessments to its nuclear regulators. Centrica's nuclear partner, EDF Energy conducted stress tests at all eight operating stations and the full reports are available to read on their website.
The reality is that earthquakes on the scale of what happened in Japan are not possible in the UK. The largest earthquake in the UK that can be calculated or reliably estimated occurred in 1931 and measured 6.1 on the Richter scale. The energy from this UK earthquake (that was 130,000 times smaller than the earthquake which hit Fukushima in Japan), caused minor damage along the east coast of England to chimneys and roofs. Despite this, there will be much the nuclear industry can learn from the events in Japan. We are committed to ensuring that lessons learnt from this tragedy are applied to UK nuclear power stations.
1 Even if they were hit by the worst storm, tsunami or flood that could be expected in 10,000 years, our plants would be safe. The levels are different for each plant because of the range of geographical conditions at each. For Sizewell, as an example, the worst case scenario for a high tide and tsunami combining is 5.9m. The worst case storm event at high tide is waves reaching 7.6m. The station is designed to withstand a wave of 10m. We have applied similar standards to all the sites, reflecting the local conditions.
The impact of a radiation breach or theft of nuclear fuel is potentially so great that securing the UK's nuclear sites is very important. Nuclear power plants must be protected against acts of terrorism, severe weather and criminal offences.
The Office for Civil Nuclear Security (OCNS) is the security regulator of the civil nuclear industry and is part of the Office of Nuclear Regulation, (ONR). The OCNS monitors and enforces compliance of security at nuclear power plants and reviews applications to sensitive nuclear material or information. A dedicated armed force called the Civil Nuclear Constabulary protects nuclear power stations. The ONR also oversees the transportation of nuclear materials.
The Nuclear Industries Security Regulations (NISR) 2003 governs the security requirements for civil nuclear operators. The NISR requires operators to put detailed security plans in place, which include protection of sites, nuclear materials and sensitive information, as well as arrangements for physical protections such as fencing, CCTV, access controls, intruder alarms and roles of security guards and the Civil Nuclear Constabulary.
For more information on security in the nuclear industry, please visit the Office for Civil Nuclear Security.
Nuclear power benefits the environment by generating large amounts of power without emitting greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Nuclear fission does produce radioactive nuclear waste that must be carefully managed to ensure safe containment. However, unlike carbon emissions, this waste can be contained and controlled.
Nuclear waste is classified in three ways depending on the concentration of radioactivity: low, intermediate and high. Spent fuel is also an output from nuclear generation.
Low level waste is lightly contaminated waste such as paper, cloth, nuts and bolts, and old components and equipment. Low level waste makes up approximately 90% of nuclear waste. Intermediate level waste includes resins from treatment of radioactive liquids, shielding or other containment materials. It is a higher level of radioactivity and is therefore encased in cement inside steel drums and stored securely on site pending a long-term disposal solution. High level waste comes from reprocessing spent nuclear fuel at Sellafield. It is not produced at British Energy stations and represents only 0.1% of waste produced by volume and accounts for 95% of the radioactivity from waste.
Each level of waste is treated and disposed of as required by regulation. Low level waste is disposed of at Low Level Waste Repository facility in Drigg, Cumbria, while intermediate level waste is often housed onsite pending permanent disposal in a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF). High level waste is not produced by civil nuclear reactors.