“Safety cuts caused near-meltdown” in Swedish nuke

from 20 August 2006

(by Reinhard Wolff and Diet Simon)

The former safety chief of the Swedish power plant that nearly had a nuclear meltdown on 25 July blames the liberalisation of the power market for the breakdown.
In addition to Forsmark, three other Swedish nukes are now off the grid for safety checks.

The loss of production is getting more expensive all the time for the owners, Vattenfall and Eon.

A Swedish TV current affairs show estimates just their revenue losses at about 80 million euros. The costs will increase if the reactors don’t come back on stream soon.

This follows the near worst disaster scenario at the Forsmark I nuke 150 kilometres north of the capital, Stockholm.

A short-circuit in the high-tension grid being repaired away from the plant cut off all its external power and its internal emergency supplies failed to come on for 23 minutes.

Seven minutes more down-time and there could have been a disaster worse than the 1986 meltdown and explosion at Chernobyl in the Ukraine (see http://melbourne.indymedia.org/), the worst nuclear disaster ever, which some studies claim will ultimately kill a million people.

“After a few days of speechlessness, the two firms that operate the Swedish nukes, Vattenfall and E.ON, have cranked up their propaganda machinery and are trying to sell the near-worst scenario disaster as an argument for the safety of atomic power,” wrote Reinhard Wolff from Stockholm in the Swiss paper “Die Wochenzeitung”. Vattenfall is wholly owned by the Swedish government, the multinational E.ON is German-owned.

“The fact that in the end nothing happened is being touted as proving safety,” Wolff wrote, adding: “They’re being backed by various commentators of the big bourgeois newspapers.”

“Although only half of the Swedish nukes are operating, there have been no power outages anywhere. But power prices went up.”

Wolff quotes an energy analyst, Roger Fredriksson, as saying “The cynicism of the power producers, who don’t hesitate a second to exploit something like that, can’t be beaten. The bottom line will probably be Vattenfall & Co reporting new record profits.”

The causes of the near-disaster in Forsmark are being investigated there and in a laboratory in Warstein, Germany, says Wolff. It appeared that computer simulation had identified the cause as a malfunctioning of an item of equipment with the long name “installation for interruption-free power supply”. (If you don’t believe the weird language check out http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GGLG,GGLG:2005-31,GGLG:en&q=installation+
for+interruption%2Dfree+power+supply
.)

But according to Lennart Karlsson, head of the reactor safety department of the state nuclear supervision authority SKI, there could also be a fault in the system structure, Wolff wrote.
This equipment is made in Warstein, Germany, by the firm AEG Power Supply.
So far more than a thousand such units have been delivered, according to the company head, Karl-Heinz Schulz. To his knowledge, no comparable mishap has occurred anywhere else. The installations themselves are no emergency power suppliers.

They deliver just enough power to drive, for example, a TV set. They’re used wherever the power supply must not fail for a single second; it’s function is to immediately start up the internal emergency generators, such as diesel generators, when there is a power failure outside the nuclear plant.
AEG delivered the equipment to Forsmark 13 years ago, wrote Wolff, who quotes Schulz as ruling out its faulty installation. “We deliver a closed system, a kind of black box, which behaves according to the instructions we have received from the customer.”

In Warstein they don’t, of course, like AEG being mentioned as a possible source of the flaw, and they emphasises that after delivery AEG has no more control over the equipment.

AEG had offered Vattenfall-Forsmark a service contract at the time, Schulz told Wolff, but it had been declined with thanks.

The units contain batteries and other wear-and-tear-prone parts that need to be renewed regularly.

AEG point out that after all, no motorist would expect to be driving with their first battery after 13 years, either.

Neither the state authority SKI nor Vattenfall intend to publish any findings of their investigations just yet. But whatever, the ultimate responsibility lies with Vattenfall. With its hydro, nuclear and coal power stations it’s one of the European electricity giants.

In the last quarter it was able to make a 15% margin on turnover. With the profits Vattenfall amassed in recent years, the enterprise could have built enough wind or other clean power plants to make one nuke redundant every year.

But Sweden’s electricity market was liberalised 10 years ago and since then state-owned Vattenfall acts like any private competitor on the free market.

The profits were not used for environment-friendly power production but to buy electricity companies in Hamburg and Berlin in Germany as well as brown coal power stations in former East Germany and Poland. This has gained Vattenfall the reputation of being one of the dirtiest power producers in Europe.

Wolff points out that in the operation of atomic reactors, too, like the one in Forsmark, the principles are dictated by the liberalised market.

These principles had reduced safety thinking, argues the former design chief at Vattenfall, Lars-Olav Höglund. It was Höglund’s whistleblowing that drew public attention to the possible consequences of the near-meltdown that could have followed the 23 minutes of uncontrolled operation.

His revelations (http://de.indymedia.org//2006/08/154515.shtml) scotched the attempts of the owners to trivialise the incident. The nuclear lobby is struggling to find counter arguments to Höglund’s revelations.

He can’t be said to have turned from an atomic Saul to an anti-atomic Paul, writes Wolff, but sees atomic power as an energy source that is still acceptable for now, but not like this.

Höglund alleges that safety thinking has fallen further and further into the background since the mid-90s. The station owners had culpably thinned out their safety departments to cut costs and put operating personnel into control rooms without in-depth knowledge of technical interdependencies.
In the logic of profit thinking, says Höglund, every hour a nuke was out of production would be reflected as a loss in the balance sheet; this was why necessary maintenance work was put off or done if possible without switching the plant off. Sometimes safety systems were just ignored even though this broke the regulations.

Some time ago the nuke owners were given permission to “squeeze” an average 14% more power from their old plants by raising their “effectivity”. This led to billions being invested in 30-year-old, technically outdated reactors.

Höglund criticises the retrofitting not just as “extremely worrying sloppy work” but also as a burden on the basic design of the reactors. “No customers in the car, aircraft or computer industries would have accepted that.”

Höglund says the consequences are unpredictable. He says the myth of the allegedly safe Swedish nuclear power can be encapsulated in one word: “Nonsense.”

Höglund suggests that all Swedish reactors be made state property as fast as possible and to put them under public control. This was not only better for safety concerns because it was decoupled from the profit motive, but the state and society would then also have the power to organise the fastest possible and orderly exit from nuclear power.

The low safety level being created by the present organisation of the power market was at any rate unacceptable, Höglund is quoted as saying.

Sweden’s leading technology journal, Ny Teknik, described the Forsmark accident as an event that is calling into question the fundamental safety thinking in the nuclear industry.

It had been based on systems being supposed to function independently of each other and on various levels. In Forsmark, though, there had been unforeseen dependencies that kept compounding the flaws.

Wolff reports in the German leftwing daily, taz, that it’s not yet possible to tell what effects the almost-meltdown in Forsmark will have on Swedish parliamentary elections on 17 September.

Swedes are regarded as very safety-conscious, he observes, recalling that in 1980, influenced by the accident in the Harrisburg, US, nuke a majority voted in a referendum to get out of nuclear power by 2010.

But so far only two of the once 12 nukes have been stood down.

Leading politicians of especially the Social Democratic Party have kept delaying the exit decision, banking on the myth of “safe” Swedish nuclear power.

Wolff suggests that could be over now. In addition to The Greens, the Left Party has also rediscovered the nuclear issue. The Social Democrats need both of these parties for a parliamentary majority.

Both of them demand that at least one more reactor be stood down in the coming lawmaking period. They also want a detailed exit plan worked out and more investment in alternative energy production.

The Greens want to achieve the nuclear exit by 2020, the Left Party is a bit more cautious with 2025.

The Social Democrats, who together with their party leader and prime minister, Göran Persson, like to whip atomic power as an outdated technology in window-dressing speeches, but have so far done very little to move out of it, could get to feel some mighty pressure, writes Wolff.

In Germany, the federal environment ministry has just commissioned an opinion survey which found two thirds of Germans wanting nuclear power ended in their country.

Sixty-two percent want the speed of the exit kept or increased. Only 33% think it’s wrong to give it up or want the exit slowed down.

Even 53% of those who vote for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative CDU party, which wants the exit slowed or nuclear power even increased, think it’s right to give it up or even want a faster exit.

Fifty-two percent regard atomic power as a great or even very great danger to themselves or their families. This relates to the nukes themselves, but also possible attacks on them, on nuclear transports or the radioactive waste.

Meanwhile an Essen based company, Hochdruck-Rohrleitungsbau (EHR), has touted proudly that it has won a contract to supply pipes for the pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR), to be built in Cape Town, South Africa, in a year or two.

PBMR is the South African description for the failed thorium high-temperature reactor (THTR) which never went into production in Germany.

The important parts will come from both Essen and another HER plant in nearby Dortmund, two cities whose names are inextricably linked with the ruinous history of the THRT in the 70s and 89s.

The Dortmund firm Uhde will build parts of the nuclear fuel element factory for the PBMR in South Africa. The RWE NUKEM (sold this year to Advent) will make available basic engineering including mishap analyses.

Bearbeitet am: 20.08.2006/ad


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