N-plant fires stoke nuclear power debate

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N-plant fires stoke nuclear power debate
Web posted at: 8/4/2007 8:13:36
Source ::: REUTERS

LONDON • Fires in power stations are not unusual, but when they strike nuclear plants, they reignite the debate over whether they should be shut down for good.

A transformer blaze at Spain’s Cofrentes nuclear plant on Thursday followed similar incidents in Germany last month and in Sweden last November, which had already alarmed the anti-nuclear lobby.

Experts say these fires posed little threat because they were well away from the reactors, but this will probably not silence nuclear’s critics.

There has not been a reactor blaze since Chernobyl more than 20 years ago, although fires around power plants-especially in transformers-are something of an occupational hazard.

“This is a very common problem,” Umberto Werdine, an operational safety specialist at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said.

“The situation is that when it burns in a nuclear power plant it’s news, but when it burns in a coal or any other power plant there is no news.”

Transformers at electricity generation units scattered around the world’s power grids are vulnerable to fire because they are cooled by flammable oil as high voltage electricity courses through them. As a result, they are built far from the reactors at nuclear plants. The Vienna-based IAEA-which promotes safe, secure and peaceful nuclear technologies for the United Nations-monitors all fires and potential safety issues across the globe.

“You hear about many of these fires, but nothing happened to the reactor,” senior IAEA safety engineer Marco Gasparini said.

Regardless of whether there is a genuine risk, the fires have stoked debate over the future of low-carbon nuclear power, as Europe tries to cut its emissions of carbon dioxide in the fight against climate change.

The debate is particularly heated in Germany and Sweden, where governments have decided to phase out nuclear power and opponents are keen to prevent the life of existing plants from being extended.

Anti-nuclear German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said the fire at Vattenfall Europe’s Kruemmel plant in Germany and a short circuit in another showed old reactors should be shut down for good.

Gitta Trauernicht, the minister in charge of nuclear safety in the German state where the plants are, said the decades-old plants are potentially dangerous.

“Nuclear is a technology where technical faults and human errors can result in disasters,” she said.

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