British Energy puts cash before safety - to keep stricken Lancashire nuclear power station running

Posted by bex — 5 September 2002 at 8:00am - Comments
Heysham nuclear plant

Heysham nuclear plant

  • British Energy - the UK's largest nuclear company - is in dire financial trouble.
  • It has resorted to the humiliating step of begging the Government to bail it out
  • Two of its 8 UK power stations (25% of its generating capacity) are shut down due to chronic safety problems.
  • One of the shut down stations (Torness near Edinburgh) has an identical twin: Heysham 2 near Preston.
  • Heysham 2 suffers from the same problems as Torness yet is still operating.


Simple. British Energy and the Government's nuclear safety agency (the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate) is putting cash before safety. Closing Heysham 2 (representing another 13% of its generating capacity) would be financially disastrous.
Keeping it running risks a different sort of disaster

The problems

Heysham 2 and Torness are identical stations built at the same time. The safety problems that have caused the shut down of Torness involve giant gas circulator fans. These fans are 12m x 8m in size. There are 8 of them for each reactor (16 at each station).
The fans spin at 3,000 revolutions per minute, pumping carbon dioxide gas through the reactors at high pressure to keep them cool. The recent accident at Torness that has led to its closure was when one of the 150lb fan blades sheared off. Metal fatigue is the likely cause. Both Torness & Heysham 2 have suffered from similar problems that were first recorded in 1992.

  • 1992-94 : four gas circulators at Heysham 2 suffer unexplained vibration problem
  • 1994 : the four circulators at Heysham replaced
  • 1995 : Heysham 2 gas circulator suffers vibration problem
  • 1997 : Heysham 2 circulator replaced
  • May 2002 : Torness reactor 2 fan blade shears off
  • Jul 2002 : another Heysham 2 circulator replaced
  • Aug 2002 : Torness reactor 1 closed due to vibration problem in gas circulator
  • Now : Torness shut. Heysham 2 still operating

Potential consequences

Greenpeace has sought expert technical advice and has learnt that the gas circulator problems could result in a number of accident scenarios leading to a major release of radioactivity.

  • a fan blade shearing off could penetrate the reactor boiler system leading to a water spill direct into the reactor. Massive amounts of steam would result causing extreme pressure rise and the possibility of nuclear fuel being ejected from the core releasing their radioactivity
  • metal debris could be sucked into the fan machinery itself causing lubricating oil seals to disintegrate. Oil would leak into the reactor causing a serious fire risk.

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