Risks at region's nuclear supply plant are ‘minimal’

Reporter:

Robert Platt

ONLY a few miles away from the bustling streets of Chester city centre sits one of the UK’s largest nuclear fuel supply plants.

Surrounded by scenic greenery and wildlife, you can hear a constant drumming noise coming from inside the squat industrial buildings located in the Capenhurst countryside, which are owned and operated by Urenco Ltd.

Although not a nuclear plant itself, the sprawling campus, featuring some of the most advanced technology in the world, plays a key role in the supply chain of the nuclear industry. Natural uranium is brought to the site and processed into enriched uranium, before being shipped off for fabrication. The product is then ready to help nuclear plants across the world produce electricity at sites much like the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant, at the heart of Japan’s ongoing disaster (although the two sites have nothing to do with each other).

In Capenhurst there are three plants - E23, E22 and A3 - which produce a staggering amount of enriched uranium - enough each year to power every home in Great Britain.

As the debate over nuclear energy has climbed its way back to the top of the political agenda, I was invited to speak with Urenco communications manager Neil Fagan to help reassure Chester residents that the plant’s facilities are some of the safest in the world.

Not only is the 72-hectare site staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but top secret, state-of-the-art technology maintains a watchful eye over operations, I was told.

Nuclear safety watchdogs the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), the enforcement arm of HSEs Nuclear Directorate, is allowed unlimited access to the factory to ensure full compliance with government-set safety standards.

“We are in one of the most heavily regulated industries in the UK,” Mr Fagan said.

“The NII require access to the site at any time. It is our local stakeholders and the regulators that give us a licence to operate, to ensure that we operate in a safe manner.

“Such a disaster as what happened in Japan is extremely, extremely unlikely here because we are not in a tectonically active area. Our plants are never built near earthquake zones, they are all located in areas with minimal seismic activities. And all of our plants are built to withstand any seismic disturbances based on the likely risks of that area.”

Although there is always a risk of some sort at any manufacturing plant, I am assured the nuclear power disaster in Japan bears no resemblance to the Urenco facility.

While there is radiation on site, there is “no risk” of contamination, and in fact employees could walk around most areas of the site without needing specialist gear to protect against radiation. And most of the 300 or so employees on site live within five minutes of the facility, which is home to a wildlife refuge.

Nevertheless, an emergency evacuation procedure could be enforced in a one-kilometre radius around the site - but, I was told, this is standard at most industrial plants.

Mr Fagan added: “If we have a power failure as they did at Fukushima, all that happens is the central fusion goes into a fail-safe mode. It is a back-up system which is done automatically. And when we ship our product, our regulated containers are equipped with overpacks and our drivers need special licences to operate those vehicles. We know where any product is at any one time through a high-tech tracking system. In fact, it is one of the safest transportation forms on the road.”

He said if a transporter vehicle were to fall over or be involved in an accident, it would not explode.

“There have been no major incidents recorded since we opened this site in 1993. In fact the whole of Urenco has a fantastic safety record.”

Workers were more likely to “hurt themselves putting in a new door frame” than be injured by the sort of event that has happened in Japan.

Mr Fagan did admit there were concerns about how the ongoing crisis in Japan could affect operations at Urenco, which also operates enrichment plants at Gronau in Germany, Almelo in the Netherlands and Eunice in New Mexico.

“As a global supplier to the industry Urenco is closely monitoring the developing situation to assess potential implications for our business,” he said.

“Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by the catastrophic events of the recent earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Messages of sympathy and support have been extended to our customers and industry colleagues.”

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