Spain nuclear watchdog warns on plant renewals

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

VALENCIA, Sept 3 (Reuters) - Spain's nuclear watchdog told plants on Wednesday that renewing their operating permits would depend on how they implemented tighter safety procedures spurred by a rash of unscheduled stoppages.

Among others, the Nuclear Safety Council reviewed safety plans at the 1,000 megawatt Asco I plant, which faces a hefty fine after the regulator asked for government sanctions over the management's handling of a radioactive leak last November.

"These plans will be an element to be taken into account by the CSN when renewing the plants' operating permits foreseen for the 2009-11 period," a statement from the CSN said.

The CSN has criticised the Asco I plant in the northeastern port Tarragona for detecting radioactive particles outdoors at the plant in March, but failing to advise it until April 4, amongst other safety breaches.

Also under scrutiny is the 1,000 MW Vandellos II plant, which halted on August 24 after one of its generators caught fire and is expected to be offline for several weeks.

Asco I and Vandellos II have the same operator but a different ownership structure.

Spain's number-two uility Endesa wholly owns Asco I and 72 percent of Vandellos II, in which top utility Iberdrola has the remaining 28 percent.

Also singled out in the CSN statment was the 1,000 MW Cofrentes plant near eastern city Valencia, where safety valves have been released twice in recent weeks.

Earlier in the day, Industry Minister Miguel Sebastian met with CSN president Carmen Martinez and called for increased vigilance from the country's nuclear plants.

"They both agreed on the need to ensure the security and proper functioning of these plants," said a statement from the Industry Ministry, which oversees energy policy.

Spain's eight ageing nuclear power stations face an uncertain future as Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government has vowed to phase them out amidst a boom in renewable energy sources.

Permits to operate seven of the plants are up for renewal between 2009 and 2011, or within the mandate of the recently re-elected Socialist governemnt.

The government will have the final say on whether to extend operating permits, which it has not ruled out, but first the CSN has to make recommendations on safety and feasibility.

First up for review is the 500 MW Garona plant in northern Spain, whose permit expires in July next year.

Spain's nuclear plants have the capacity to produce 7,700 MW between them, or much less than the 16,000 MW which the country's wind farms can deliver if all work at once.

In practice, however, nuclear plants work more consistently and have provided about 23 percent of Spain's electricity so far this year, according to figures from national grid operator, while wind power has accounted for 11 percent.

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