Spanish nuclear plant closed after fire in electrical generator

Monday, August 25, 2008

MADRID (AFP) — A Spanish nuclear power plant shut down after an electrical generator fire Sunday, safety officials said, the latest incident at a reactor that has already been hit with record fines for its safety record.

The incident came just weeks after the government vowed to take action against another nuclear station over a radioactive leak last year.

In Sunday's leak environmental group Greenpeace said that a large column of smoke had been seen coming from the turbine room during the fire at the Vandellos II complex near Tarragona in northeastern Spain.

Officials at the Spanish Nuclear Safety Authority (CSN) said the fire had been put out with no injuries or environmental damage reported.

"The fire took place in the generator which is located in a conventional building that is separate from the reactor," Rafael Cid, a senior CNS official, told AFP.

The generator transforms into electricity the energy generated by the nuclear reactor. The reactor itself had shut down automatically, said Cid, the watchdog's sub-director general for nuclear technology.

"From a security point of view we are relaxed," he added.

The alarm was raised at 8:49 am (0649 GMT) and the fire was put out less than two hours later, said a CSN statement.

"All security systems of the installation operated as expected and they were not affected by the fire. At this moment the reactor is stopped and stable. The event did not have any impact on workers or the environment," it said.

The reactor will likely be closed for several weeks, officials said.

Vandellos II is jointly run by the Spanish energy groups Endesa and Iberdrola. It was built in 1980 and has a permit to run until 2010.

In 2006 the nuclear plant was slapped with a fine of 1.6 million euros (2.4 million dollars) due to deficiencies in communication, monitoring and repair of corrosion in pipes that carry seawater to the plant to cool the reactor.

The fine was the largest penalty ever imposed on a Spanish nuclear power plant.

It was more than five times as large as the previous record penalty -- levied in 1997 against the same plant.

Earlier this month the government vowed to take firm action against another nuclear plant after CSN pressed for a hefty fine over its handling of a radioactive leak for which some 2,600 people had to be screened.

The leak at the Asco I plant, also in Tarragona, originally occurred in November and radioactive particles were detected outdoors on March 14, but the plant did not tell the watchdog until April 4.

Environment groups and local authorities protested that staff at the plant had allowed a school trip there to go ahead just a day before the leak was made public.

The CSN recommended the plant be fined between nine million and 22.5 million euros for a series of breaches, including their failure to immediately report the leak.

The Asociacion Nuclear Asco-Vandellos (Anav) operates both the Asco and the Vandellos II reactors on behalf of owners Endesa and Iberdrola.

The nuclear power critic of the Spanish arm of Greenpeace, Carlos Bravo, said the government should remove Anav's operating licence because "it has not proven itself to be a responsible operator."

"There have been a series of grave mistakes and we are standing before the risk of a serious accident," he told news radio Cadena Ser.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's socialist government has vowed to gradually close down the country's six nuclear power stations.

Spain is moving towards being a leading producer of electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar power.

But with oil prices soaring, the government is under pressure from some quarters to review its anti-nuclear energy policy.

Nuclear power, much of it imported from neighbouring France, provides around 20 percent of Spain's electricity needs.

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