Spain watchdog moves to sanctions over nuclear leak

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

MADRID (Reuters) - Spain's nuclear watchdog on Wednesday said it will formally request sanctions proceedings against a nuclear plant for improper handling of a radioactive leak that will require the screening of more than 2,600 people.

Nuclear Safety Council (CSN) president Carmen Martinez told a parliamentary committee that a report into the leak at the 1,000 megawatt Asco I plant was well advanced.

Martinez said 2,116 people had been screened out of an estimated 2,600 who had passed through the plant, but none had been found to be contaminated.

"The testimony's main aim was to...reiterate that at no time was there any radiological impact on people or the environment," a CSN statement said.

The CSN launched an investigation on April 14 with a view to sanctioning management at the plant in northeastern port Tarragona for incomplete and delayed information on the leak.

The leak occurred during refueling last November and radioactive particles were found outdoors at the Endesa-owned plant in March, but the watchdog was not advised until April 4.

Environmental groups and local authorities protested that a school visit to Asco I was allowed to go ahead on April 4. The leak was made public the day after.

Asco's plant manager and safety officer were sacked shortly afterwards, and Asco I was halted on Tuesday for some three weeks to allow further cleaning up after the leak.

The CSN added that 1,000 radioactive particles had been found at the plant, mostly cobalt-60, which emits potentially cancer-causing gamma radiation. In lower doses, cobalt-60 can be used in radiotherapy.

The leak comes at a delicate time for Spain's nuclear industry, as the recently re-elected Socialist government has pledged to phase out the country's eight ageing reactors amidst a drive to use more renewable energy.

Permits for seven of the plants expire between 2009-2011, within the Socialists' mandate, although the government has yet to rule out extending their working lives. The Jose Cabrera plant has already been closed.

Nuclear is unpopular in Spain and neither of the main parties in March's elections vowed to build new reactors.

Spain's nuclear power stations provide about 7,500 MW of power when all are running normally. That is about 10 percent of its total generating capacity, but the plants meet about 20 percent of demand for energy as they work constantly.

In comparison, Spain's wind parks have the capacity to produce 15,000 MW, or twice as much as nuclear plants, but can provide as little as two percent or as much as 28 percent, depending on the weather.

(Reporting by Martin Roberts; Editing by William Hardy)

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