Spain watchdog boosts screening after nuclear leak

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

MADRID, May 7 (Reuters) - Spain's nuclear watchdog has stepped up screening of workers and visitors to the Asco I power station following a radioactive leak reported last month.

In a statement released late on Tuesday, the Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) added that it had so far checked 1,625 people out of a planned total of 2,544 at the plant near northeastern port Tarragona and found none to have been contamminated.

The CSN had initially planned to screen 900 people after management at the 1,000-megawatt Endesa-owned (ELE.MC: Quote, Profile, Research) said they had found radioctive particles outdoors including cobalt-60 due to a leak during refuelling work in November.

The watchdog said it had boosted screening as more information became available on contract workers and in response to requests from visitors' groups.

Environmental groups have protested that a school visit was allowed to go ahead to Asco I on April 4, the day that plant management informed the watchdog of the leak.

The Asco I manager has since been sacked and the CSN has opened sanctions proceedings against the plant for providing incomplete and delayed information about the leak.

The leak, which rated 2 on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) and prompted a visit by European Commission inspectors, comes as Spain is debating whether to prolong the working life of its eight ageing nuclear reactors.

Spain's recently re-elected Socialist government has pledged to phase out nuclear power amidst a drive towards renewable energy and is due to review licences for operating seven of the country's plants between 2009-11.

The CSN has reported two other relatively minor leaks in recent days which it has put down to human error.

Cooling Water was spilled during refuelling work at the Almaraz I plant in southeast Spain on Friday but was not deemed noteworthy by the watchdog nor did it delay production plans.

On Tuesday radioactive aerosol was accidentally sprayed inside the Juzbado fuel plant near eastern city Salamanca, which was classified as noteworthy by the CSN. Management said radioactivity was within permitted levels.

Environmental group Greenpeace has said the spillages at Almaraz I and Asco I, as well as other recent technical problems at other plants, show that Spain's reactors need to be closed.

"The Socialist government can easily close the nuclear plants as the technical and economic feasibility of an electricity system based 100 percent on renewables is a scientifically proven fact," a Greenpeace statement said.

When all of Spain's nuclear power stations are up and running they provide about 7,500 MW, or about 10 percent of installed capacity, but actually meet 20 percent of demand for electricty as they run continuously.

Wind power provides the mainstay of Spain's renewable energy and has an installed capacity of some 15,000 MW, but depends on unpredictable weather conditions and can meet anywhere between 3 and 30 percent of demand. (Reporting by Martin Roberts; editing by James Jukwey)

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