Spain's nuclear watchdog denies corrosion at plant

Sunday, November 16, 2008

MADRID, Nov 13 (Reuters) - Spain's nuclear watchdog on Thursday denied that a nuclear power plant already facing sanctions over a radioactive leak was also suffering from a particularly aggressive form of corrosion.

Earlier in the day, daily newspaper El Pais said lead particles detected in the interior of the Asco I nuclear power station during checks mandated by the Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) were derived from stress corrosion cracking (SCC).

The CSN said operators of the Endesa-owned plant were investigating how a lead particle came to be found on a ventilation filter in the fuel building, but said corrosion was not the cause.

'The report according to which unknown and unexplained corrosion is arising in parts of the plant is unfounded and has no technical basis,' a CSN statement said.

The Spanish government is mulling sanctions against Asco I after the CSN ruled that operators had incorrectly handled a radioactive leak which required the screening of more than 2,700 people, none of whom were found to be contaminated.

The leak happened about a year ago during refueling work at the plant, which is near to the northeastern port of Tarragona.

Radioactive particles were detected outdoors in March this year, but the CSN was not informed until April 4. The watchdog released a preliminary statement the day after.

Local media critcised Asco I for allowing a school visit to the plant to go ahead on April 4.

A spate of unscheduled halts due to technical problems over the summer prompted the CSN to tell plants in September that they would have to observe tighter safety procedures if their operating permits were to be renewed.

Permits for seven of the country's eight ageing nuclear plants are up for renewal between 2009 and 2011. That is within the mandate of the Socialist government, which has pledged to phase them out due to a boom in renewable energy.

The government has not ruled out extending the plants' working lives, however, and Industry Minister Miguel Sebastian said recently that permits could be renewed if operators invested enough in plant safety.

Nuclear power stations have provided about 22 percent of electricity generated in Spain so far this year, according to data from national grid operator REE.

In a bid to cut greenhouse gas emissions and its heavy dependence on imported fuel, Spain has become the world's third-biggest wind power producer, after the United States and Germany.

Spain's wind parks have the capacity to generate about 16,000 MW, or more than twice that of its nuclear plants. In practice, nuclear plants work more steadily and this year have provided twice as much electricity as wind generators.

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