Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Billowing skyward

Nuclear Power Plants always take me a bit by surprise. I remember the first time I saw the one at Heysham when I was catching the ferry to the Isle of Man. It was just there. No more fuss about it than a bus station or an industrial estate.

Today as we passed the Cofrentes Power Station I thought it sobering that alongside the enormous, and picturesque, steam cloud coming from the twin cooling towers, was a nuclear reactor which might, at any time, do a Fukishima or Chernobyl and start killing and polluting for generations to come. On a sunny and crisp December day it just looked tranquil. The cooling towers plonked in the middle of the landscape weren't quite so romantic but the fluffy steam clouds rising to play with the vapour trails left by passing jet planes seemed very peaceful. Much more peaceful than the busy blades of the hundreds of wind turbines in the area. There are windmills dotted along the top of nearly every ridge in the borderlands of Valencia, Castilla la Mancha and Murcia.

Spain currently has eight nuclear reactors running on six sites. Two more reactors are in the process of being dismantled after suffering "incidents." Within the last few weeks the operators of the Santa María de Garoña plant in Burgos have said that they will close that plant down ahead of schedule to avoid paying a new tax which will cost its owners approximately €150 million per year.

The largest percentage - 33% - of electricity production in Spain comes from renewables of one sort of another. Next up is nuclear with around 21% and then come the combined cycle with about 19% of the power generation. I presume that the missing percentages are from the older non combined cycle power stations.

Iberdrola, the people who send us our electric bill, own Cofrentes. It produces 1,110 megawatts. I have no concept of a megawatt fortunately the operators make it clear that this is a lot. They say that Cofrentes could, singlehandedly, provide all of the domestic supply for the three provinces of Valencia. In 2010 the plant ran faultlessly for 365 days without any halt in production and provided nearly 5% of all the electricity used in Spain that year.

The website of the Nuclear Safety Council mentions that all of the reportable events since 2005 at Cofrentes have been Level 0 on the International Scale of Nuclear Events - that is ones which have "no safety significance." However, between 2001 and 2011 Cofrentes made 25 unplanned shutdowns and reported 102 security events three of them at Level 1 which is classified as an anomaly but where there is still significant defence in depth.

The Nuclear Event Scale has three levels of incident and four levels of accident. Chernobyl and Fukishima are way out at the front at the moment on Level 7. The 1957 Winscale Fire was a Level 5 event, on a par with Three Mile Island in 1979. Sellafield has also had five Level 4 accidents between 1955 and 1979. In Spain the biggest incident to date, Level 3, was at  Vandellos in 1989 when a fire destroyed many of the control systems and meant that there were almost no safety systems remaining. Vandellos is one of the two plants that are being decommissioned at the moment.

I don't suppose there are quite the same sort of specific accident and incident scales for bus stations and industrial estates.

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