Cablegate: Spain: Worst Nuclear Incident Since 1992

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

190910Z Apr 05




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: 04 MADRID 4241

1. (U) SUMMARY: Recent discovery of corroded cooling tubes
inside the Vandellos II nuclear reactor near the Catalonian
city of Tarragona appears to represent the worst nuclear
incident in Spain since the 1992 discovery of faulty sensors
in the cooling system of the Trillo nuclear reactor near
Guadalajara. The Vandellos II incident was first publicized
earlier this year by Greenpeace Spain, but received greater
publicity after a highly critical report by the Nuclear
Security Council (CSN - Spain's Nuclear Regulatory Commission
equivalent) was leaked to pro-government daily "El Pais" in
early April.

2. (SBU) Julio Barcelo, one of the CSN's Commissioners,
told ESTHOFF April 13 that while the Council continues to
analyze the events at Vandellos II, it was almost certain
that the incident would be officially characterized as a
"level 2" accident (on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being the
most serious). Press reports that the reactor's owners
(energy sector giants IBERDROLA and ENDESA) could face fines
of up to three million euros. Barcelo, while not trying to
minimize the reactor operators' transgressions, argued that
the CSN's strong reaction shows that Spain's nuclear
regulatory framework remains effective. He said that though
the issue would likely stay in the public eye until the CSN's
final report (and fine) are unveiled in the fall of this
year, the incident at Vandellos II would not likely have a
lasting impact on the "whither nuclear energy" debate in
Spain. End Summary.

3. (U) The April 8 edition of "El Pais" reported that the
CSN had issued a "devastating" report criticizing the
Vandellos II nuclear power facility for attempting to
minimize and cover up the discovery of severe corrosion of
several pipes feeding Mediterranean waters to cool the
"primary circuit" of its nuclear reactor. The pipe corrosion
itself reportedly caused no immediate danger, but could have
eventually facilitated a failure of the overall reactor
cooling system. The CSN report, which represents the public
opening of its investigation, accuses the reactor's
operators, electricity sector giants ENDESA and IBERDROLA, of
"insufficient vigilance over the cooling pipes," a "lack of
general sensitivity ... about the importance of security,"
putting "emphasis on production over security," and "hiding
and delaying handing over information to the CSN." The
report notes that the facility's owners had changed reactor
maintenance companies in 2002 and that the new company had
significantly reduced maintenance efforts, thus facilitating
the pipe corrosion.

4. (U) "El Pais" reports that ENDESA and IBERDROLA have
admitted maintenance deficiencies, but have tried to shift
the blame to the company (unnamed) holding the reactor
maintenance contract. It quotes an owners' spokesman saying
"since we did not know of the problem, we could not inform
the CSN." Both the owners and the CSN have stressed that
there was never a serious risk of radiation release. The
corrosion was reportedly detected after the cooling pipes
began to leak in May, but the reactor operators did not
inform the CSN until August (after the end of the summer
season of peak electricity demand). The reactor is currently
shut down for refueling and for implementation of 60
"corrections" demanded by the CSN. Four CSN inspectors are
supervising the implementation of the "corrections."

5. (SBU) The CSN has initially deemed the incident to be a
"level 1" accident on its scale of 1 to 7 (with 7 being the
most serious). However, CSN Commissioner Julio Barcelo (U.S.
NRC Commissioner equivalent) told ESTHOFF April 13 that the
CSN would almost certainly raise the incident's status to
"level 2" when it releases it final report (which he thought
would be in September or October). Barcelo did not minimize
the operators' transgressions, but claimed that the CSN's
strong reaction demonstrates that Spain's nuclear regulatory
framework remains effective. He expected that IBERDROLA and
ENDESA would receive a "serious" fine, which media reports
could mount to up to three million euros. Barcelo expected
intermittent media interest until the final report/fine is
announced this fall. He did not think the accident would
have a serious impact on the "whither nuclear energy" in
Spain debate, which he noted would not really get going until
2008 (when the next reactor permit renewal decision must be
made -- see reftel).

6. (SBU) COMMENT: The CSN has been criticized by
Greenpeace and some "Green" politicians for its lack of
transparency. In fact, Greenpeace's efforts forced the CSN
to release the April 7 interim report. Barcelo said the CSN
would have preferred to finish its investigation before going
public. Trying to take advantage of the situation, some
"Green" politicians have proposed "whistleblower" legislation
that would protect nuclear sector workers who go public with
safety-related concerns. But we have detected little
enthusiasm within the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE) to take
on CSN reform. The PSOE does not like public attention
focused on the nuclear sector. During its 2004 national
election campaign, the PSOE publicly called for the gradual
phase-out of nuclear energy in Spain. However, it now
realizes that Spain cannot effectively fight global warming
(i.e., reduce greenhouse gas emissions), without the roughly
24 percent of current Spanish electricity consumption
provided by the country's nine greenhouse gas-free nuclear
reactors. Thus, while the CSN will likely take a hard line
regarding Vandellos II (to show that it is effectively
carrying out its oversight mandate), we doubt that either of
Spain's two leading political forces will attempt to exploit
the nuclear safety issue for political gain. Spain's
reliance on nuclear power is a "clean little secret" that few
want to reveal.

7. (SBU) NOTE: The CSN report and other
investigation-related materials provided by Barcelo have been
pouched to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (attention
Cindy Rosales Bush, Office of International Programs).

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