Huge fine for Ascó emission

12 May 2009

A minor release of radioactive materials has led to a €15.4 million ($21.0 million) fine for the operators of the Ascó nuclear power plant because of their failure to react appropriately in terms of control and communication.

The fine was announced yesterday by the country's Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Trade. At €15.4 million it is the biggest ever handed down in Spain, but well short of the €90 million theoretical maximum under the charter of the Nuclear Safety Council (Consejo De Seguridad Nuclear, CSN), which brought the prosecution.

No-one was contaminated after radioactive metal particles were released from the fuel building of the Ascó 1 pressurized water reactor, but some 800 people who had been on-site had to be checked. The emission rated at Level 2 on the International Nuclear Event Scale, officially an incident but with no consequences either on the plant site or in the wider area.

The Ascó plant is owned by the utility Endesa and run by the Asociación Nuclear Ascó-Vandellòs (Anav) - which operates the two reactors at Ascó and one at Vandellòs on behalf of Endesa and Iberdrola.

The fine breaks down as follows:
  • €7.5 million for a radioactive emission with the potential to exceed the annual dose limit for a member of the public on the plant site.
  • €3 million for failing to establish control the potential contamination of staff and to mark and delimit affected free-access areas after detection of the particles.
  • €3 million for breaching regulations by not notifying safety regulators of the discovery of the particles in free-access areas after discovery of 14 March until 4 April 2008 and for not informing the safety inspector resident at the site.
  • €1.8 million for not keeping adequate records for monitoring the contamination in free-access areas in contravention of the Manual on Radiological Protection.
  • €75,000 for failing to take steps to minimise the likelihood of potential exposures by allowing a truck carrying contaminated scrap metal to leave the site.
  • €15,000 for not providing a report on the performance of radiation monitors in the fuel building after the ventilation discharge.

The March 2008 emission had its origins in a November 2007 refuelling operation. Ventilation ducts in the fuel building became contaminated with activated corrosion products which had been collected at the final stage of clean-up of the the fuel transfer canal. After three days of recirculation through the emergency ventilation and filtration system, the normal ventilation path was restored, which is thought to be the source of the release.

Both the plant manager and the head of radiological protection were fired shortly after the management failings became known.